McGuire estimated the North Coast could one day see as many as four trainloads of coal, each a hundred cars long, per day, with four empty trainloads returning. He reached the estimate using current commodity prices to calculate how much coal a company would have to ship to meet a minimum return on investment that would be demanded by federal railroad regulators before they would approve such a venture, he said.
With coal declining as a global energy source and a steep investment required, officials put the minimum cost to rebuild just the rail line higher than $2 billion. That does not include the cost to build out a coal shipping port in Humboldt Bay. It also doesn’t include the expense of fighting an extended legal and public relations battle in a region firmly opposed to coal and dedicated to climate change mitigation politically.
Those factors led at least one energy industry expert to say the prospect was economically unwieldy.
“It’s the longest of long shots,” said Seth Feaster, an analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
A wave of resolutions by local governing bodies oppose the proposal. The Transportation Authority of Marin passed a resolution against the idea on Sept. 23. The Novato City Council and the Marin County Board of Supervisors are set to consider similar resolutions in coming weeks. The Mendocino Board of Supervisors passed a resolution in opposition on Sept. 15, as did the Ukiah City Council.
Members of the Windsor Town Council, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and Santa Rosa City Council all told The Press Democrat this week they would be bringing their own proposals, as elected members of bodies up and down the SMART line rush to indicate their opposition to even the slightest possibility of long trains of coal chugging through the North Bay.
“There is just no way in hell that citizens of Sonoma County, with it going through the Eel River Canyon and it being coal, with long trains through the heart of our communities all for an outdated carbon fuel source … I just can’t imagine anyone being supportive of this idea,” Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, the current chair of the SMART board of directors, said Friday.
As the nation and much of the world continues to move away from coal-fired electricity, a shift driven by climate change concerns and the rise of renewable energy and domestically by cheap natural gas, investors are increasingly shy about backing coal schemes, analysts say. The fact that the shipping project here would take several years at a minimum to get off the ground only adds to the challenge.
“These are very speculative adventures, and if there was a good market case to do this you would see more development than there has been and you would see significant exports out of Vancouver, and you just don’t,” Godby said.