Coal Money in Politics: Whatcom County

Who's behind the coal money flooding a critical local election?
This post is 5 in the series: Look Who's Taking Oil & Coal Money

The race for the Whatcom County Council may turn into one of the nation’s most important votes for climate change. That’s because the county is home to Cherry Point, the site of a massive proposed coal terminal—which, if constructed, would be the biggest coal terminal in North America, allowing 48 million tons of coal from the landlocked western US to reach Asian seaborne coal markets.

In Whatcom County, local authorities have a direct say over the land use and permitting decisions that will allow the project to go forward—or not. In other words, the composition of the Whatcom County Council matters a great deal to the future of the US coal industry. And as it happens, four of the seven members of the Council are up for re-election, which means that the races have become a virtual referendum on the highly controversial coal port.

As KUOW’s Ashley Ahearn reported last week, the candidates thought to be opposed to the port were handily out-fundraising their opponents. Then, just after Ahearn’s story and other similar coverage was published—and just days before a key fundraising deadline—a tsunami of coal money flooded into a two-month-old local PAC, Save Whatcom.

Here’s how suddenly the cash arrived:

timeline coal PAC

And here’s where Save Whatcom’s money comes from:

Whatcom coal money_pie

Only a small fraction of the pro-coal money comes from Whatcom County, or anywhere in the Northwest for that matter. Almost all of it can be directly linked to firms or people with a strong financial interest in Northwest coal exports. And much of the coal money seems to originate from sources that tilt heavily toward Republican politics.

Here’s a closer look at who’s behind coal money in Whatcom County.

Cloud Peak Energy: $50,000

Based in Wyoming, Cloud Peak is a “pure play” Powder River Basin coal company. For several reasons, it is probably the best-situated US company to compete in the Pacific Rim export market. In fact, it currently claims almost all of the relatively small volumes of coal exported from the West Coast. Even so, times are tough for would-be coal exporters. So tough, in fact, that an analysis by Sightline showed that last quarter Cloud Peak made roughly 10 times as much money shorting coal as by actually selling it.

The firm has already inked a deal to move 16 million tons of coal through the Gateway Pacific terminal in Whatcom County, giving Cloud Peak a direct financial stake in the outcome of local elections there.

Global Coal Sales: $50,000

Ohio-based Global Coal Sales is a privately held firm that appears to be primarily a marketer for coal mining companies. It was formed as a joint venture between an Ohio utility and Boich Companies.

Boich Co. may be best known for its 38-year-old heir, billionaire playboy Wayne Boich Jr., who once dated Tara Reid and whose activities make him sound like a comic book villain. According to the Miami Herald, for example, he bought three North Bay properties for $19.6 million in 2012 planning “to knock down all three homes and build one big billionaire bachelor pad.” (Photos of Boich, who appears to have chronic difficulties buttoning his shirt, are here and here.) His father, Wayne Boich, is one of the biggest financial backers of US Speaker of the House, John Boehner.

Global Coal Sales is part owner of the Signal Peak Mine in Montana. It hopes to become a player in US coal exports to Asia—and Westshore Terminals in British Columbia has claimed to ship Signal Peak coal—but it is probably best known for being plagued with problems. As Derf Johnson has ably documented, the company has avoided paying taxes even as it has been fined repeatedly for sins such as failing to properly ventilate its mines, failing to prevent cave-ins, and failing to report workplace accidents.

Global Coal Sales is also linked to Cloud Peak. According to reporting by Ralph Schwartz, (and other sources), the former head of export sales at Cloud Peak, Steve Read, took a job as executive VP of Global Coal Sales in May 2013.

Corbin and Barbara Robertson: $32,000

With each of them throwing in $16,000, Corbin and Barbara Robertson of Houston, Texas are easily the largest pro-coal individual donors in Whatcom County. As the Whatcom County Democrats have pointed out, the Robertsons are major league coal barons through their company, Quintana Minerals. In fact, according to a 2003 article in Forbes, “Robertson sits atop the largest private hoard in the nation—21 billion tons of reserves he has quietly amassed over three decades.

They are also major league Republican donors. Individually and through Quintana, they have funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to top Republican candidates like John Boehner, Mitt Romney, Ted Cruz, and even groups you wouldn’t think would need outside money, such as the Idaho Republican Party.

The Robertsons are linked to the Northwest coal export debate. Corbin is CEO of Natural Resource Partners (NRP), a Houston-based investment firm that owns coal, oil, and gas reserves. According to its website, 40 percent of NRP’s holdings are made up by Arch Coal properties, and Arch Coal badly wants into the Northwest export business. Arch has a 38 percent stake in the Millennium Bulk Terminals proposal in Longview, Washington, and it is actively lobbying for new coal export capacity in Washington. (In fact, it was a conversation with a senior Arch Coal executive that recently landed PR flak Lauri Hennessey in hot water.)

SSA Marine: $12,000

SSA Marine’s contribution is the biggest by any Northwest interest. Based in Seattle, SSA Marine is a port terminal company that is the lead proponent of the Gateway Pacific coal port.

Richard Donahue: $5,000

Donahue made his donation in late August, making him the first contributor on record for Whatcom County’s pro-coal PAC. He is a financial planner who lives in Bellingham. He runs Asset Advisers LLC from an office in the Fairhaven neighborhood, and he hosts a weekend talk radio program in town, “Wealth Wake Up with Dick Donahue.” Donahue appears to be affiliated with the Tea Party as well as with an anti-Indian movement that aims to reduce the autonomy of tribes.

Saturna Capital Corporation: $3,500

Occupying a nondescript building in downtown Bellingham, Saturna Capital is an investment firm that manages several billion dollars worth of mutual funds. The firm has carved out a niche in Islamic investing, which requires abstaining from investing in banks, liquor, gambling, and other verboten enterprises.

The Saturna contribution is odd looking. According to the Washington Public Disclosure Commission, Saturna has only once before made any type of political contribution. That was in 2003, and it was merely a few hundred bucks of “in-kind” contributions in the form of office space for an employee, Brett Bonner. And the firm itself is a member of Sustainable Connections, a network of local Whatcom County businesses that aim to “model an economy built on sustainable practices.”

On the other hand, Saturna CEO Nicholas Kaiser is a major donor to Republican campaigns, including an August 2013 gift of $6,400 to the Whatcom County GOP—the largest donation to the party by far—as well as smaller contributions to unsuccessful gubernatorial candidates Rob McKenna and Dino Rossi. Other employees also show up as smaller donors to Republican candidates, including to the bete noir of state climate policy, Senator Doug Ericksen.

If the $3,500 contribution to Save Whatcom comes from Saturna Capital itself, as it appears, that makes it ripe for a local divestment campaign of some sort. If, on the other hand, the contribution actually originates from Kaiser or some other Saturna employee, then it is in clear violation of state election law and should be corrected immediately.

What’s next?

The Whatcom County Democrats have filed a formal complaint with the state attorney general, alleging numerous illegalities by the pro-coal PAC. Yet with a vote-by-mail system in Washington and ballots already arriving at voter’s homes, time is exceedingly short for both sides.

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  1. Sandy Robson says:

    Corporations like Cloud Peak who has a contract with SSA/PIT for storing and exporting coal, Global Coal Sales which is part of Boich Companies which is part owner of Signal Peak Mine in Montana, and Corby Robertson who is the owner of the largest private US coal reserves and who owns many companies one of which is Quintana Maritime whose web link takes you to Excel Maritime Carriers Ltd. And guess what they do? They are an independent shipping company operating a fleet of dry bulk vessels and providing world-wide seaborne transportation services. Coal is one of the dry bulk cargoes they ship.

    These contributors all stand to privately gain from getting the proposed coal terminal permitted, are trying to stack the deck trying to get the particular county council candidates elected who are most likely to approve the permits.

    It also seems highly unethical for the companies (SSA/PIT) and BNSF who are the actual permit applicants to contribute money, whether indirectly ($30K from PIT and $10K to the WA state Republican Party which then funnels the money to the County Republican Party and then to the coffers of the county council candidates), or as Eric DePlace referred to in this article, directly to the pro-Cherry Point Coal terminal SaveWhatcom PAC which funds the 4 conservative county council candidates, who if elected, will be sitting in a quasi-judicial role for the permit decisions.

  2. Julian says:

    Nicholas Kaiser (of Saturna) gave $900 to William Knutzen, $900 to Kathleen Kershner, $900 to Ben Elenbaas, $900 to Michelle Luke, $1,100 to Dan Robbins, all of whom are supported candidates for County Commission and Port of Bellingham on the SaveWhatcom website. The candidate for Port of Bellingham that they did not contribute money to – Ken Bell – is listed at Patrick K Bell in the disclosures. Not sure if there is a Patrick K Bell running or if he is using his middle name.

    • Eric de Place says:

      Good point, Julian.

      A close observer of Whatcom County politics wrote me yesterday to add the following:

      “FYI, Nick Kaiser is the sugar daddy of Whatcom GOP. In the 2009 county council races he dumped $19K into the Kathy Kershner campaign, nearly half of the $45K she raised to defeat incumbent Dan McShane. That was the race that tipped the balance to the conservative faction. Kershner is running again, Kaiser has $900 contribution.”

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