Former Democratic Gov. Mike Lowry’s recent visit to a proposed coal-export terminal near Longview, and his favorable comments about the project, have surprised some environmentalists.

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On the battlefield of one of the biggest environmental clashes to erupt in the Pacific Northwest in decades, an old soldier for liberal causes and steeped in “green” cred has re-emerged — but this time, he’s fighting for the other side.

Or at least that’s how some environmental groups perceive Mike Lowry’s recent visit to the site of a proposed coal-export terminal on the Columbia River, where the former Washington governor and congressman spoke favorably about the controversial project.

Lowry’s tour on May 28 of the proposed Millennium Bulk Terminals (MBT) coal-export facilities site in Longview — during which he met with company brass, local elected officials and labor representatives who back the project — quickly generated a story in the hometown newspaper.

The publicity event featuring the prominent Democrat, whose last bid for public office as state lands commissioner won backing from environmental groups but fell short at the polls 15 years ago, was part of a wider “public education” strategy to build support for the Millennium project, Lowry acknowledged.

“Supportive would not be the right word,” Lowry told The Seattle Times on Wednesday about his take-away from his Longview visit. “But I felt good about what they were saying in their answers to the questions I had.”

Now in the midst of required state and federal environmental reviews, the Millennium project, which would invest more than $600 million to turn the site of a former Reynolds aluminum plant into an international terminal capable of exporting 44 million metric tons of coal annually, is among several separate projects that collectively would place the Northwest among North America’s regional leaders in coal exports, if approved.

Mining companies in Wyoming and Montana, experiencing slipping stock prices and decreasing domestic demand for their coal, are pushing to open new coal ports along the Columbia, at Cherry Point in north Puget Sound and elsewhere up and down the Northwest coast to help them reach new markets abroad.

But such proposals have enraged environmentalists and prompted widespread protest, which in recent months has widened from criticisms about potential local impacts caused by increased freight-train traffic and coal-dust pollution to broader concerns over coal’s contributions to global warming.

The seemingly peculiar pairing of Lowry, an outspoken liberal with a solid environmental reputation, with Big Coal caught some of the leading green opponents off-guard.

“We’re surprised to see him aligning himself with that project,” Eric de Place, policy director for the sustainabilty-promoting think tank Sightline Institute, said of Lowry’s recent visit to Longview. “But here’s the thing: Big Coal is in sorry straits right now, especially with the Longview project. It would make sense for them to make whatever last-ditch attempts they can to try to marshal support for it.”

Supporters of the Millennium project say the proposal is a viable opportunity that not only would help bring a cleaner-burning coal to Asia but would generate millions in tax revenues and create more than 1,300 temporary construction jobs and 135 permanent ones for economically depressed Cowlitz County.

The former governor’s visit came at a time when public opinion of the project is nearing a key phase: A draft environmental-impact statement on the planned terminal is due in November, after which a public-comment period opens that could impact a final review and future decisions about the proposal.

Lowry said his trip to Longview was more about keeping an open mind than taking sides.

“The easiest thing to do is to be against anything — and that will get us nowhere,” he said. “You have to be open to looking at things.”

Lowry said he agreed to the Longview visit at the invitation of his friend Bill Chapman, formerly a senior environmental law partner at K & L Gates who last year became MBT-Longview’s chief executive.

Chapman, who for years has worked with Lowry on the directors board of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition and other projects, arranged the visit, which included lunch with local dignitaries and a presentation about the project.

“I learned a lot of things, and one was how they’re going to contain coal dust,” Lowry said. “They gave a good answer: that they have kind of a coating on the coal so dust is not flying off when the trains are coming in from Wyoming. I didn’t know that and think that’s important.”

Other than covering the cost of Lowry’s train ticket to Longview, the former governor said he wasn’t paid for his visit and isn’t a project consultant. After the visit, Chapman drove Lowry home to Renton, he added.

That Lowry is even considering the coal industry’s environmental arguments for such a proposal is “super disappointing,” de Place said.

“To my way of thinking, there’s a fair debate to be had on some dimensions of these projects,” de Place said. “But the environmental questions are pretty much settled. Every environmental group in the state, bar none, opposes these projects — and for good reason. Coal is by far the worst fossil fuel on the planet contributing to global warming.”

The Sierra Club’s Cesia Kearns, who codirects the “Power Past Coal” campaign — a coalition of groups working to stop West Coast coal exports — said more than 160 elected officials have joined thousands of opponents to voice concern over such projects, she said.

“Given the breadth of opposition that’s been drawn to this issue, he’s looking like a lone wolf,” Kearns said of Lowry.

Lowry’s promotional visit follows a spate of hirings by the coal industry in recent years of Democratic-leaning policy- and media-strategy firms with “green” reputations or executives to help shape public opinion in Washington on various coal ventures.

Bruce Gryniewski, a former executive director for Washington Conservation Voters who’s now a partner with Gallatin Public Relations, said he has no qualms with his firm’s handling public relations for Millennium’s Longview project even though most of his old allies in environmental circles are steadfastly against it.

“The reality is, energy is a complex issue,” Gryniewski said. “We need to explore all of these methods when looking at climate change, and drawing lines in the sand is not how the real world operates.”

Lowry, 76, who said his priorities these days are his grandchildren, added he doesn’t plan to weigh in further on Washington’s coal-port debate.

“In this case, a good friend of mine with good environmental credentials gave me the opportunity to come down and learn something,” Lowry said. “And I enjoyed it.”