Look Who’s Taking Coal Money, Part 2

The legal arm of the coal industry in the Northwest.

Photo credit Jesse Varner

Photo credit Jesse Varner

If ever an industry needed lawyers, it’s coal.

Widely despised for the range of harm it leaves in its wake—from asthma in kids to mercury in fish to dangerous drinking water pollution—the coal industry long ago became dependent on law firms to run interference with the rules that would protect public health and the environment. And now that coal is coming to the Northwest in a big way, it’s hiring a small army of lawyers to smooth the path from unwelcome interloper to permanent fixture.

Several well-known Northwest law firms, including two that cheerfully market themselves as green leaders, have thrown in their lot with the coal industry. They aim to help coal companies avoid a comprehensive public review of plans to export as much as 140 million tons of coal annually from the region. Yet it’s probably fair to say that many of these law firms care deeply about their reputations and would rather not have their work for the coal industry broadcast too widely.

In our first installment, we looked at the Northwest consulting and PR firms doing the coal industry’s dirty work. (We missed one, Smith & Stark, which we’ll get to in a moment.) In this chapter, we’ll examine four Northwest law firms that are working to promote coal exports.

Gordon Thomas Honeywell

A Northwest law firm with offices in Seattle and Tacoma, Gordon Thomas Honeywell adorns its website with photos of windmills and orcas. The firm sells itself as green, even devoting an entire webpage to its “commitment to sustainability”:

Gordon Thomas Honeywell understands how vital sustainability is to the environment and our future generations. And we recognize that business operations can impact the world around us. We make every effort to limit that impact for our employees, our clients, and our community. 

The truth is that Gordon Thomas Honeywell is deeply connected to the coal industry.


The firm defended the proposed coal terminal near Bellingham against a claim from a local nonprofit that the project backers had illegally cleared acres of forest on the proposed terminal site, a potentially very serious violation of its permits. The firm has also taken sides with the coal industry against Climate Solutions and has filed permit applications to expand port facilities for the proposed coal terminal. In fact, Craig Cole, the leading proponent for the coal terminal, identifies himself with Gordon Thomas Honeywell (p43).

Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt

A law firm with offices around the Northwest, Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt pitches itself as green, even hosting a webpage with an essay on sustainability that includes the following:

Schwabe’s professionals are increasingly mindful of the impact that our ecological footprint (carbon or otherwise) has on the local, regional and global environment.

But promoting sustainability takes more than altruism and a healthy love for nature. Living and working sustainably takes more than a one-time donation or a recycling drive. Truly promoting sustainable practices requires a fundamental shift in thinking – a fundamental reassessment of the way we do business. It requires introspection, self-awareness and taking the long-view.

Unfortunately, the firm’s long view includes working for the coal industry.

Attorneys Jay Waldron and Walter Evans represent Ambre Energy in its efforts to put 8 million tons of coal a year on the Columbia River for shipment to Asia. In an August 2012 meeting at the Port of Cascade Locks, Waldron argued that the Morrow Pacific project would yield no visible coal, no coal dust and no train congestion. And next month, attorney Brien Flanagan from the Portland office will be at an energy law gathering in Fort Lauderdale leading a workshop on the Morrow Pacific Project.

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Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt’s work for the coal industry might come as a surprise to companies listed on the firm’s sustainability webpage, including The Natural Step and Flex Car (now Zip Car). The firm’s role in the coal industry might also be unwelcome news to Oregon Business magazine, which ranked Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt among its Best 100 Green Companies to Work For in Oregon in 2012.

Stoel Rives

With offices in Portland and Seattle, law firm Stoel Rives touts its work in the green economy. Its website highlights renewable energy and climate change, and its attorneys sponsor events with the Washington Clean Technology Alliance. But Stoel Rives is also working for the coal industry.

Partner Beth Ginsberg, formerly a senior staffer with the US Environmental Protection Agency, is listed in the international Who’s Who of Environmental Lawyers. Now she works for Millennium Bulk Terminals, the group backed by Ambre Energy and Arch Coal, aiming to ship 44 million tons of coal annually from Longview, Washington, on the Columbia River. She is helping coal companies attempt to avoid a full review of the cumulative impacts from many proposed export terminals.

K&L Gates

K&L Gates is a global law firm with a prominent office in Seattle. Partner Eric Laschever has been an adjunct faculty member at both the University of Washington and Seattle University Law Schools where he has taught courses on climate change law and ecosystem restoration. He also works in support of the coal industry’s export terminal plans. Laschever argues that the Northwest coal terminal plans should not be reviewed for their cumulative impacts, a case he’s made in at least one seminar and to the Association of Washington Cities. Meanwhile, attorney James Lynch has bird dogged the coal terminal’s permitting process in Whatcom County and with top state officials.

Beyond its Seattle office, K&L Gates is a big supporter of the coal industry. In past years, K&L Gates has worked for Peabody, the largest coal company in the US, to water down important federal climate legislation. The firm’s K Street office in Washington, DC, continues to lobby for Peabody and for BNSF Railways in support of the proposed Gateway Pacific coal terminal (p 3).

Smith & Stark

Smith & Stark is not a law firm. It’s a Seattle-based PR firm that we overlooked last time doing work for SSA Marine, helping to push for development of a coal export terminal north of Bellingham. On the firm’s website, partner Gary Smith is advertised as an environmentalist:

Gary’s public service trends toward conservation issues, especially regarding salmon. He represents the United States on the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission and serves on the boards of Long Live The Kings and the Seattle Aquarium Society.

Yet Smith is an agent of the coal industry. He is a lead spokesperson for the Gateway Pacific Terminal that would ship 48 million tons of coal through the San Juan Islands to markets in Asia. He is quoted in the press representing SSA Marine’s view on herring protection at the site of the proposed coal terminal. He has admitted to hiring temporary workers to stand in line at coal export review hearings in order to artificially increase the presence of pro-coal interests.

Curiously, Smith & Stark’s clients include many who stand to lose if the firm is successful in getting the coal terminal built, including the Seattle Historic Waterfront Association, Puget Sound Shellfish Growers, and Taylor Shellfish. Other clients, like the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce and Classical KING-FM, may prefer not to be associated with the coal industry.

Drawing a line in the sky.

Climate activist Bill McKibben argues for “divestment,” moving our money away from damaging fossil fuel companies in order to starve them of the cash they need to operate. Yet divestment could also take the form of withholding our dollars from the firms and lobbyists who are the coal industry’s bagmen.

What if Oregon Business Magazine stripped Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt of its ranking among green companies? What if Taylor Shellfish or the Seattle Chamber stopped doing business with Smith & Stark? What if the Northwest drew a line in the sky by refusing to give money to the coal industry, including its local agents? A firm that lost even a client or two—or that had its reputation tarnished—might decide it’s smarter to stay away from coal.

Without local connections and advocates, the staggeringly destructive coal export plans would struggle to find a path through the laws and rules designed to protect the public from the depredations of huge fossil fuel interests. It’s not hard to imagine that this sort of divestment might hasten the demise of the coal export plans that would do so much to worsen the Northwest’s traffic congestion and rail service, while putting at risk the region’s high standards for clean water, safe air, and human health.

Originally published at Sightline Daily

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