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Originally published Monday, December 20, 2010 at 3:29 PM

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Guest columnist

Should Washington state be a resource colony or clean-energy leader?

Washington state ports should say no to building coal-export terminals at its deepwater ports to accommodate export to Asia, argue guest columnists Kevin Wilhelm and Ross MacFarlane. Better to leave the coal in the ground and develop clean-energy sources.

Special to The Times

A SERIES of proposals to build coal-export terminals in a number of Washington's deepwater ports raises an important question: What kind of future do we want for Washington?

The choice is stark. We can either harness our greatest natural resource — Washington's know-how and ingenuity — to develop a strong local clean-energy economy and export clean-energy products and services. Or we can become a low-wage, resource-colony economy exporting raw materials like coal to China, where they will use it to manufacture goods to sell back to us. The time to make that decision is now.

First, the facts. Americans have overwhelmingly chosen alternatives to building new coal plants. They also recognize that clean and safe alternatives — energy efficiency, renewable energy and smart energy systems — put more people to work, keep our energy dollars in our communities, and keep our air and water clean.

The coal companies, recognizing that there is little future growth to be had domestically, have a new plan: export the coal that we're not using to China. China would put the coal to use manufacturing steel and other goods that used to be made in America. The other major import that would result? Pollution. The poorly regulated Chinese coal plants are major sources of global-warming pollution and toxic emissions — for example, the mercury that makes wild fish dangerous to eat — in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere.

The volumes of coal being discussed are truly astonishing — tens of millions of tons each year. Just one of these proposals would involve seven mile-long trains filled with coal disrupting communities all the way from the Interior West every day. Port facilities would be given over to ugly, filthy industrial sites with enormous piles of coal and constant noise and dust.

Washington can do better.

Exporting natural resources like coal would create a lot more jobs in Asia than it would here: It doesn't take many people to unload the trains and fill up the ships with raw materials. Developing our clean-energy economy — instead of fueling Asia's dirty-energy economy — would drive far more job growth, reduce the costs of energy waste, and offer a much brighter future to our kids.

Studies show that a true national commitment to clean-energy leadership would demand hundreds of thousands of new careers in skilled, family-supporting jobs — orders of magnitude more (and better quality) than the few dozen manual-labor tasks at a Washington coal-export facility.

Instead of sacrificing our shorelines for dirty trains and mountains of coal, we should be cleaning them up and asking the public how they want them to be used. Greenfields can be preserved for recreation and wildlife; existing sites can be used for light-industrial and high-tech uses.

Let's establish a new vision for these ports. The Port of Tacoma recently stood at the crossroads and said no to coal export. Now we need to do the same for the rest of Washington.

Instead of ships filled with American natural resources going out, passing ships loaded with solar panels and other manufactured goods coming in, let's leave the coal in the ground and put America to work developing our local clean-energy economies. It will give us a fighting chance to prevent a climate disaster, improve the air and water in our cities, and restore American leadership in the global economy.

Gov. Chris Gregoire, Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark and other public officials can be leaders in saying "no" to coal and "yes" to continuing the legacy of Washington's leadership on climate change and a clean-energy economy.

Kevin Wilhelm, left, is CEO of Sustainable Business Consulting and co-chairs the Clean Energy Committee for the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce. Ross Macfarlane is the business partnerships senior adviser at Climate Solutions.

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