China’s massive appetite

President Obama, on a four-day visit this week to Thailand, Burma and Cambodia, underscored his administration’s “pivot” toward Asia, and China, in particular. “Pivot” has a clinical ring, neither aggressive nor endearing (Chances are balancing China’s economic and military rise won’t blossom into a “special relationship” like the one shared by the U.S. and the United Kingdom.) The policy isn’t code for “sphere of influence” or other Cold War jargon, nor does it telegraph “marry me.” The U.S.-China relationship is a cultural and economic tangle, a love-hate pivot compounded by an autocratic, sometimes liberalizing, often human-rights abusing People’s Republic.

China is the likely final destination for millions of tons of coal from Wyoming and Montana’s Powder River Basin, freighted daily by rail through Washington, Oregon and perhaps British Columbia. In a new energy paradigm that wasn’t difficult to forecast, China is the largest coal consumer and producer in the world. Four years ago, China, despite a diversifying energy portfolio and major reserves in Shanxi Province, became a net importer of coal. The country’s major international suppliers include Vietnam and Australia and, very soon it appears, the U.S.

An economic dynamo with an unsustainable appetite for fossil fuel? Americans have a sounds-familiar kinship with China and other prospering East Asian economies.

For decades, trade with Asia has buoyed the Pacific Northwest. Everett shingle mills produced the value-added materials for Japan to rebuild after the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923. A knowledge-based economy strong in aerospace, agriculture and high-tech, Washington is the most trade-dependent state in the country. With the West Coast as a spearhead, the U.S ranks as China’s No. 1 trading partner, shouldering out Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong. And Boeing has thrived thanks to huge airline orders from Asia. The company forecasts that over the next 20 years, the Asia-Pacific region will need 12,030 new planes at a cost of $1.7 trillion.

The Asia-Northwest cultural bond remains blood-thick and near seamless. We are, marketing clichés aside, the gateway to the Pacific. Northwesterners look across the ocean to the Asian continent, not to that other land mass that sits on that other ocean (the one that gave us King George III.)

A blame-China mindset ignores the reality of an energy-hungry nation and a coal-rich supplier. Does it matter if coal from the Powder River Basin is extracted from federal Bureau of Land Management land, de facto subsidized by American taxpayers?

A web of open-car coal trains may be coming to a rail crossing near you. It’s global-energy economics, and the Pacific Northwest is the portal.