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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