Coal exports: Are they opportunity or curse?


A big question these days is whether it would be good or bad to build large coal-shipping terminals in Washington and Oregon, enabling transport of substantial quantities of U.S. coal to China and possibly other Asian countries. The answer is not simple.

Proponents of the idea point primarily to jobs that the construction and, to a lesser extent, operation of coal terminals could provide, as well as new jobs related to mining and transport of coal. To be sure, sales of coal could also be a boon to our balance of trade with China.

Alternatively, those concerned with global warming and growing ocean acidity resulting from increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide point out that coal-fired power generation is one of the world’s largest sources of emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. They argue coal should be left in the ground, rather than burned. They also have a point. In addition, sulfur released during coal combustion contributes substantially to acid rain which can have a variety of costly effects on plants, animals and anything subject to corrosion, such as car finishes.

At a local level, Cheney and other communities along the rail lines to be used to deliver coal from the Powder River region of southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming to West Coast shipping terminals would see substantial increases in the number of trains passing through their communities. This could contribute to traffic congestion, longer response times for emergency vehicles, and increased diesel emissions from locomotives. There is also concern that coal dust could be a problem, although BNSF Railway has indicated application of a surfactant, or topping agent, at the time of loading can reduce coal dust emissions by about 85 percent.

Turning back to the issue of climate change, last week’s news stories addressed a wide variety of issues related to global warming, including increasing acidification of the oceans, shrinkage of the Great Lakes and the news that global greenhouse gas emissions grew by three percent last year.

China’s burgeoning economy is driving rapid growth in its need for energy supplies. Much of this demand is projected to be met by coal-fired power plants. According to a report by the World Resources Institute (“Global Coal Risk Assessment: Data Analysis and Market Research,” November, 2012), China currently accounts for 46 percent of global coal consumption, followed by the U.S. at 13 percent. The report also estimates that “China and India together account for 76 percent of the proposed new coal power capacities.” According to another source, pollutant emissions from China increased by 10 percent during 2011.

Conversely, in the U.S., political opposition to coal use and economic competition from rapidly expanding access to domestic natural gas and oil, as a result of recent improvements in extraction techniques, have actually reduced the nation’s coal consumption (and carbon dioxide emissions).

So would blocking sales of low-sulfur Powder River coal to China help contain global carbon dioxide emissions, or would it simply drive the Chinese to other markets? According to the Australian Coal Association, Australia is the world’s largest coal exporter. Exports of Australian coal to China during 2009-2010 nearly doubled over the previous year. Australian coal is generally low in sulfur.

On another dimension, “clean coal” technology, involving the capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide, has been talked about in the U.S. for years, but little progress has been made toward that end. Considering the cost of developing and implementing the technology, combined with decreasing U.S. reliance on coal, little incentive exists in this country for moving forward on clean coal development.

On the other hand, the Chinese government is expressing considerable interest in pursuing clean (or at least cleaner) coal technology. Only time will tell if this will translate into the kinds of technological breakthroughs necessary to successfully limit the impact of coal combustion on world climate.

Quite a conundrum, isn’t it?

John Taves retired in 2011 after 35 years with Bonneville Power Administration where he spent the last half of his career as a constituent account executive working with public interest groups and state of Oregon elected officials on a variety of issues of concern. He is an active Cheney City Councilman, however the views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of the council.


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