Climate and the coal trains

Government is a curious beast. For decades, the feds subsidized tobacco farmers while warning consumers that it would kill them. Coal is the energy analogue: The feds subsidize coal mining on public lands in Wyoming and Montana’s Powder River Basin (to the tune of $29 billion) while trumpeting the hazards of carbon pollution as the primary driver of climate change.

It’s comically tragic or tragically comic.

Consumers learned that tobacco was unhealthy, and domestic demand plummeted. For the past decade, the nation’s appetite for coal has dipped thanks to renewable energy, conservation and cleaner natural gas. Whither industry? No, no. Simply take what you have and market it overseas.

The separated-at-birth comparison ends there — energy is a necessity. National policy demands coherence, and President Barack Obama gave it a stab with his Tuesday speech addressing climate change.

“We don’t have time for a meeting of the flat-earth society,” Obama said. “Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it won’t protect you from the coming storm.” It’s a fitting capsule on the debate to export PRB coal from terminals at Cherry Point near Bellingham and the Millennium Bulk facility at Longview. Supporters have their heads in the sand for not weighing the long-term health and climate fallout. Opponents are similarly naïve if they don’t address the demand for increased rail capacity, coal or no.

As The Herald’s Bill Sheets reports, the number of coal trains headed to British Columbia will continue to rise, although nowhere on the scale of the Gateway/Cherry Point proposal. Gateway spells 18 round trips per day, with an annual export volume of 48 million metric tons. It’s best not to picture the nearly 1,000 mega-cargo ships that will ferry the coal to Asia, or to imagine, “What if?”

On June 17, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that its environmental review would be limited. Social impacts, global warming, and coal dust are too wide-angle for a statutorily limited bureaucracy (Opponents should look on the Corps’ decision as a blessing. Most engineers aren’t exactly skilled at measuring social data.)

Obama’s climate-change speech threw light on an executive style that asks the larger questions. Regarding the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, the president underlined the need for no net increase in climate-change gases. “Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires finding that doing so is in our national interest,” Obama said.

And so we have our index: Are Northwest coal-export facilities in the public interest? Tally up the costs, and the answer is no.

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