In the Pacific Northwest, there's a push to export more coal to the Asia-Pacific market, meaning increased train traffic and more ports -- both of which some localities have been fighting. To combat that resistance, coal companies are hiring ‘green’ strategists to convince local leaders and citizens that a Northwestern coal boom could have a huge economic impact without damaging the environment.

The hostility to increased coal exports in communities from Montana -- where much of the coal would be mined -- to Washington and Oregon -- where it would be shipped to China and India -- has been fierce. Many local officials, including in Portland and Seattle, have stressed that they don’t want the ports built without the environmental and health impacts being studied. Some have even passed resolutions to make that opposition an official city policy.

“With access to our cheap coal, countries in Asia will be induced to build new coal-fired power plants, instead of transitioning to cleaner energy sources,” the Helena, Mont., City Commission wrote in a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, which is reviewing proposals for five ports. “This will lock in reliance on coal as a source of energy for the life of these power plants, with an astronomically negative effect on climate change.”

So the coal companies, who told Governing last year that they believe those concerns can be mitigated, are rolling out former environmental activists to make their case, particularly in Washington state. They’re helping to create an advertising campaign, working with the media and lobbying state officials, including those in the state ecology department and various county agencies who would have to sign off on any plans to build coal ports in the state, The Seattle Times reported this week.

The Times singled out a few specific activists. Among them: Bruce Gryniewski, former director of the Washington Conservation Voters, one of the biggest environmental advocacy groups in the state, whose public relations firm is now advocating for the proposed port in Longview, Wash. How did he reconcile his old role as an activist with his new one?

“Our firm has a passion for growing the Northwest economy,” Gryniewski told the Times. “I don’t believe in this eco-McCarthyism view that if you work for coal, you can’t do anything good in the world.”

The economy was a theme among several of the companies' new strategists interviewed by the newspaper. Lauri Hennessey, a former Environmental Protection Agency employee who now works for another public relations firm that's advocating on behalf of pro-port labor unions, offered a similar response. She portrayed the pending coal boom in the Asia-Pacific region, where demand is expected to grow by 40 or 50 percent in the next 20 years, as a one-of-a-kind opportunity for municipalities in the Pacific Northwest.

“I think it’s an oversimplification to say that if you don’t meet that demand, it will disappear,” Hennessey told the Times. “The more you dig into the whole complicated issue, I feel very, very proud about being involved.”

The recruiting of former environmental activists is also likely to create some strange battlelines as people like Gryniewski and Hennessey square off with some of their former colleagues who are going to be speak out against the ports.

“This isn’t like being on different sides of a primary or something like that,” Brendon Cechovic, who succeeded Gryniewski at Washington Conservation Voters, told the Times. “This is a completely unprecedented proposal in our state’s history. This is a big deal.”