A moral crossroads on coal

In late March, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar traveled to Cheyenne, Wyo., to announce that his department would soon sell leases to 752 million tons of coal from public holdings in the Powder River Basin, and was proceeding on future sales of an additional 1.6 billion tons.

Salazar called coal “a critical component of America’s comprehensive energy portfolio, as well as Wyoming’s economy” and said “it’s important that we continue to encourage safe production of this important resource.”

Salazar made no mention of the potential for some of that coal being sold and shipped to Asia. He may have been the only person in Wyoming that day with an interest in energy who wasn’t thinking about coal exports.

Just before Salazar’s visit to Wyoming, the two giant companies that mine about half of the state’s annual coal production, Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, announced deals that could lead to a big jump in the now relatively small business of sending western U.S. coal to hungry markets in China, Japan, India and other Asian nations. In mid-June, newspapers in the Pacific Northwest reported that two Oregon ports on the Columbia River are also being considered as sites for exporting coal to Asia.

All of that has prompted an escalating battle in the Pacific Northwest over what could be the first U.S. coal export terminals on the West Coast. And, combined with Salazar’s boosterism, it has raised questions about whether the United States is backsliding on the fight against global climate change.

Before heading to Wyoming, Salazar might have done well to visit the White House’s website and read its straightforward commitment “to leading the charge to reduce the dangerous pollution that causes global warming. …”

There is nothing in federal law that requires the Interior Department to consider greenhouse gas emissions in how it manages its 500 million acres of land, or that gives the federal government control over the construction of coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest. But pressure is building to consider carbon pollution in evaluating the environmental consequences of federal land management decisions under the National Environmental Policy Act.

And the coal lease decision does beg the question of why we would want to foster China’s current economic growth strategy of buying up resources and infrastructure around the world in service of its own economic dominance, rather than investing in developing the domestic clean energy technologies and advanced production processes that could make us global leaders in the emerging clean energy economy.

Rather than sending conflicting signals about its dedication to fighting global warming, the Obama administration needs to get ahead of the issue and clarify where it stands on whether it’s a good idea to facilitate coal exports. Given the rising market demand for coal in Asia, the projected decline in coal’s dominance of the U.S. electricity market as natural gas and renewables grab market share, and the controversies heating up over export facilities in the Northwest, the issue will sooner or later rise in importance in Washington.

China may be a world leader in developing clean, renewable energy but it still has a huge appetite for coal and is expected to build 773,000 megawatts of coal-fired electricity between 2007 and 2030. Even with the third largest coal reserves in the world, China is stepping up imports. U.S. exports to China, Japan, India and other Asian nations (so far through facilities in western Canada) have risen rapidly, to 13 million short tons in the first nine months of 2010, up from about 3.9 million short tons during the comparable period in 2009, according to the Energy Information Administration. In those same periods, U.S. coal exports to China rose more than tenfold to about 4.1 million short tons, to Japan rose almost fivefold, and to South Korea almost threefold.

That rising demand is whetting the appetite of Wyoming producers. “We’re opening the door to a new era of U.S. exports from the nation’s largest and most productive coal region to the world’s best market for coal,” Peabody Energy Chairman Gregory Boyce said in a statement as his company announced a deal to ship up to 24 million tons of Powder River Basin coal through a proposed terminal north of Bellingham. Six weeks earlier, Arch Coal bought a 38 percent share of a company that has plans to build a second coal export facility in Longview.

Environmental and landowner groups from Puget Sound to the plains of eastern Montana are mobilizing to fight the terminals. They cite a menu of potential ill effects: small-town disruptions from the jump in rail traffic involving coal trains more than a mile long moving from Wyoming and Montana to the West Coast; health impacts from fugitive coal dust blowing from open rail cars (up to 3 percent of the loads, according to BNSF), threats of coal train spills into the Columbia River.

Then there is the question of enabling China and other Asian nations to pump more carbon dixoide into the atmosphere. That, says KC Golden, policy director of the Seattle nonprofit Climate Solutions, is the “moral crossroads” faced by local and state officials in Washington state.

It’s also the moral crossroads that ought to be engaging officials in the other Washington.

Tom Kenworthy is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Kate Gordon is the center’s vice president for energy policy. Readers may write to them at: Center For American Progress, Suite 1, 1333 H Street NW, Washington, D.C., 20005-4707; website: www.americanprogress.org.

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