Energy Blog: Coal Export Ports Dumbest Thing We Can Do

Why building coal export ports in Washington is about the dumbest thing we could do

By Andy Silber

There are two proposals to build coal-export terminals in Washington: one in Longview and the other just north of Bellingham. Building these terminals is akin to building a road through a wilderness area to a bridge you just torn down. Washingtonians didn’t pass I-937 (the initiative that requires utilities to increase their use of renewable resources) so that we could export more coal to China. Our state legislature didn’t pass SB6001 (a law that prevents the building of new coal plants in Washington) so that we could keep the price of coal low for export. We enacted these laws so that the coal stays in the ground. As far as our atmosphere is concerned it doesn’t matter where the coal is burned. The idea of increasing our electricity rates (because coal is cheap, if you don’t count that it’s killing us) so that we can export coal to China so that they can sell more cheap stuff to us is totally nuts.

The world has been unable to pass a climate treaty that limits the emissions of greenhouse gases. The US never even ratified Kyoto. And that sucks. Despite that, we’ve made significant progress domestically:

  • Seattle and hundreds of other cities of signed on to the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, committing those cities to meeting the Kyoto targets.
  • Most proposals to build new coal plants have died
  • Some older, dirtier and less efficient coal plants have been shuttered rather than being brought into compliance with clean air regulations
  • We’ve gotten commitments to switch some power plants away from coal in the future, including Washington’s only coal-fired power plant in Centralia
  • The wind and solar industries have seen remarkable growth
  • 2008 and 2009 both saw significant decreases in CO2 emission for the US. This was certainly partially due to the recession, but some of the changes are likely to be permanent (e.g. shuttering old coal plants)

We’re starting to get our own house in order, slower than we need to but the direction is good. The problem is that China is building a huge number of coal plants. Even though China has enormous deposits of coal, they can’t mine it fast enough. So they’ve gone shopping. Since the largest reserves of coal are found in the US (30% of proven coal reserves) it’s our coal that they want to buy. So if the US stops mining coal that limits how much damage can be caused by China burning coal. They’ll run out a lot sooner. Also, if China doesn’t have access to enough coal, they’ll have to stop building new plants.

If the US stays out of the international coal market the price of coal will go up (simple supply and demand). This will discourage the building of new plants and encourage the upgrading of existing plants to make them as efficient as possible. It will also encourage the construction of renewables and conservation/efficiency. We can’t force the Chinese to restrict their emissions of CO2, but we sure as hell don’t have to help them cook the world by selling them coal.

Some make the case for building these ports by talking about the jobs created. That argument makes no sense to me. No one talks about how the war on drugs hurts farmers in Columbia just trying to make a living selling coca. When we limit where strip clubs are located, what about the living-wage jobs that are killed? Should we encourage kids to drink more soda, since it will create jobs treating their diabetes and obesity? Jobs created doing a damaging activity are no boon to society. And exporting coal is certainly more damaging than a strip club.

So what can we do about it?

First off, don’t build the ports. We work with our federal, state and local elected officials to stop the construction of these exporter centers of death. We pursue every possible legal angle to tie these projects up for as many years as possible. We fight to include the climate impact of these ports in the environmental impact statements (EIS). Since coal burned in China is a significant source of air pollution in the US that should also be included in the EIS.

Secondly, we hit the rail lines. These enormous trains will be carrying toxic material through our neighborhoods. If a pickup carrying leaves needs to cover its load, it’s pretty obvious that a train carrying toxic dust needs to be covered. We work to pass legislation that requires the trains carrying coal to cover their loads.  There are legitimate health and environmental reasons to require this, but it also increases costs, and everything we do that increases costs makes it less likely that these projects will move forward.

Most importantly we organize. The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal: Washington project is now working on coal exports. There’s a meeting at the UW campus on November 16th that isn’t a bad place to start.