By MATTHEW WEAVER
COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho -- More coal will be shipped via rail in the Pacific Northwest -- that much seems fairly certain.
What's less clear is how much coal will be shipped and the impact it will have on grain shipped by rail in the region.
Coal is shipped on the same main line rails as grain. By 2020, China is expected to increase its coal purchases as the U.S. reduces its use of coal for energy. There are six proposals for coal export facilities in Oregon and Washington by port districts or other companies.
A Washington State Department of Transportation study of rail capacity found that the growth in coal volume will lead to capacity problems on the main lines, requiring the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and Union Pacific Railroad to assess and possibly increase capacity.
If all the coal shipping terminals are built, transportation analyst Terry Whiteside said they could require 27 to 37 more trains per day, all trying to use the rail lines through the Columbia River Gorge.
A Burlington Northern representative responded that only two or three terminals will likely be built, increasing potential coal exports to between 50 million metric tons and 100 million metric tons instead of the 200 million metric tons forecast and eight to 12 additional coal trains running through the region.
When new business comes along, the railroad assesses existing customers and traffic on a line, noting abilities and limitations, said Zak Andersen of Burlington Northern.
"The first thing we have to do is make sure we're not harming existing business or potential growth," he said, noting the company is confident it will be able to meet growing demand well into the future.
Andersen advised the ag industry to remain connected with the railway, indicating their expectations and the transportation capabilities. Capacity planning is constantly updated, he said.
Whiteside said some rail lines will have capacity issues once coal terminals are operating at full capacity, within 10 years.
It's the largest single increase seen on a rail system during a 10-year period in the past 100 years, he said.
"A hundred million tons is a lot of tonnage to suddenly put on that system," Whiteside said. "I have all the confidence in Burlington Northern over a long time, but I get worried about short-term issues that may occur in the next five to 10 years."
They spoke at the Tri-State Grain Growers Convention in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.