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Best of 2011: Would a Washington state coal port mean a damn thing to the environment?

Proponents of a coal port say fuel from here would be cleaner than what China would burn from domestic supplies. Opponents worry about the effects of any coal on the climate. But maybe our decision isn't that big a deal either way. Further: the economics of high-cost U.S. coal may be the real limiting factor.

A coal-powered generating plant in China.

A coal-powered generating plant in China. Klineolive/Wikimedia Commons

Editor's Note: In the run-up to the new year, Crosscut is sharing ten days of its best stories from 2011, each with a different theme. Today we revisit coverage about the environment. This story, by Crosscut writer Daniel Jack Chasan, first appeared June 29, 2011.

People who back the idea of a coal port in Whatcom County have added a sophisticated new argument to their arsenal: They're not just saying "jobs." And they're not just saying, "If we don't ship coal to China, someone else will." They're also saying, "If the Chinese don't burn our coal, they'll burn something worse."

Ken Oplinger, president/CEO of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce & Industry, and Chris Johnson, vice president of the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council, argued recently in The Seattle Times: "Stopping the terminal will not stop China from using coal; the world has plenty. It will only stop China from using our cleaner coal, which has less mercury, sulfur and nitrogen oxides. Opponents say the coal China uses affects our air quality. So if they use our coal, our air will actually be cleaner."

It's true that stopping the terminal will not stop China from using coal. Blocking construction of a port at Cherry Point, or Longview, or any place else in the Pacific Northwest won't reduce by even one lump the amount of coal burned in Chinese or Indian power plants. There's plenty of coal in the world. It can reach Asian power plants in many ways. The presence or absence of a coal port anywhere in Washington will have zero effect on Chinese energy production. It will also have zero effect on global climate change, which — not conventional air pollution — is the big issue cited by opponents of a coal port in Washington state.

"The total amount of fossil fuel burned globally is going to determine the fate of the climate," says David Hawkins, director of climate programs for the Natural Resources Defense Counci (NRDC), who served as the EPA's assistant administrator for air, noise and radiation under President Jimmy Carter. Where it's mined and where it's burned probably don't matter a whole lot. "The only thing that matters for climate is the total coal burn in the long run," says David B. Rutledge, the Kiyo and Eiko Tomiyasu Professor of Electrical Engineering at CalTech, who is an expert in fossil fuel supplies, "not the burn in any particular year or who burns it. From that perspective, there would be no climate impact [of shipping or not shipping a given amount of coal through Washington], assuming that it is burned by somewhere, sometime."

One can still make a moral argument against shipping coal through Washington: If we think it's wrong, we shouldn't become part of the process. One can also make the — somewhat hopeful — political argument that someone has to take the first step. If not us, who? If not now, when?

“We are in the moral hazard zone on this,” says K.C. Golden, policy director of Climate Solutions. “We are in the wrong participating in any way in accelerating this.” He sees the flap over the coal port as “the start of a long discussion about what is going to happen on the west coast of the United States. “It's an opportunity to reflect on what ... this economic crossroads look(s) like,” he says. “We are past the point at which we can 'protect' the environment from the ravages of the fossil fuel economy. We have to replace the fossil fuel economy.”

The U.S. has a lot of coal. We are no more likely to leave it all in the ground than Saudi Arabia is likely to forget about its oil. But even though President Barack Obama has touted "clean coal" as part of the nation's energy future, U.S. utilities aren't building a lot of coal-fired power plants. If the coal industry wants new markets, it has to find them overseas. Already, the U.S. exports coal from ports on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. That doesn't do you much good if you want to sell coal strip mined from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana. Asian demand could create a lucrative market for that coal.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Dec 30, 11:39 p.m. Inappropriate

This article is like a discussion of who gets to sell the candy in a diabetic clinic. How much money the candy manufacturers make may be interesting to a few people, but it skips the main point. If we want to survive we need to follow basic health guidelines.
People need a healthy diet, and the planet needs carbon balance.
The rising carbon dioxide level in our air needs to be halted now. The huge oceans warm slowly, so the carbon dioxide from the coal, oil and natural gas we burn today will keep raising temperatures for decades. We are already risking out of control climate damage. The drought, flooding, fires, dust storms that cost the US $60 billion in damages in the first 6 months of 2011 is not the new normal, it is the beginning of worse to come.
What actions do we need to take to stabilize the climate? Is the World Business Council’s Vision 2050 a good plan? How about chapters 9 and 10 in Lester Brown’s downloadable book World on the Edge? What government steps should citizens encourage to help clean energy and more efficient technology gain a competitive edge in the marketplace?
Taxpayers have picked up the tab for years, funding highways more than transit, military efforts in oil-producing foreign countries, government fleets and buildings that guzzle oil and electricity from coal, and emergency aid for victims of spills and extreme weather. If fossil fuel industries had to pay the real cost of our use of their product, it would be much more expensive than green energy. A tax on the first sale of coal, oil, and natural gas, with refunds directly to citizens would level the playing field and encourage a vibrant, profitable clean energy economy.

Posted Sat, Dec 31, 4:54 p.m. Inappropriate

Its fascinating how the "use-it-up-while-we-can" fossil fuel mentality chooses to ignore basic economics when it suits them. For example, if anyone makes any sort of moral, environmental, or public health argument against continuing to pump carbon into the atmosphere we're told that economics (i.e., short term profits for a few) is the important thing and any other values must fall victim to the will of the Holy Free Market. But then they completely ignore basic economics without even blushing, as they've done here.

Basic economics says that supply and demand will determine cost. And that the more expensive something is, the less of it will be used. In this case, if US coal is the cheapest, then it has the market advantage and will be the coal used. But if externalities such as environmental, health, and other economic costs (re: the impacts on commerce of all those coal trains tying up crossings and squeezing out other freight and passenger traffic) are factored in, it probably can't compete against those coal sources where the profiteers get to stick those costs onto others.

What is the effect in any market when the price of something goes up? People use less. Instead of burning as much coal, efficiency, conservation, and alternative energy sources become more competitive. So, unless this basic tenet of economics is totally flawed, preventing the export of coal from the PNW is going to raise the price of coal available to China, which will result in the cost of coal increasing. And that will mean that less coal will be burned.

Of course, I don't like to simply ignore the moral arguments against trashing the planet's climate and totally screwing ourselves and future generations, by which I mean anyone younger than myself (and I'm 60 now). My mother had the answer to anyone saying that if "we" (how much coal corporation stock do you own?) don't supply coal to China, then someone else will. And everyone knows the answer to "All the other kids are doing it." Would you jump off a bridge if there was someone in front of you jumping off a bridge? Or would you try to keep them from jumping?

Steve E.

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