Plans to Export US Coal Draw Criticism

By: Nick Engelfried 

September 10, 2010

If international coal energy companies get their way, power plants in China could soon have a new source of dirty fuel to burn through: coal mined from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming.  Coal mining giants Arch Coal and Ambre Energy are in the process of planning how to ship fuel from some of the largest coal reserves in the US down the Columbia River and across the Pacific, to China and other countries where demand for cheap coal has soared.  Yet while selling coal to China is likely a lucrative business decision, it could spell disaster for international efforts to curb global warming.

The United States holds by far the largest coal reserves of any country in the world.  Yet concerns about coal’s environmental impacts have brought the building of new US coal plants to a virtual halt, and environmental groups like the Sierra Club argue this country should be decreasing its reliance on coal, not mining more of it.  Pound for pound, coal emits more carbon dioxide when burned than either oil or natural gas—a fact that makes coal-fired power plants the most important contributor to global warming both nationally and globally.

In addition to carbon dioxide, burning coal releases other pollutants like mercury, sulfur dioxide, and ground-level ozone.  Pending Clean Air Act regulations meant to control these pollutants have already prompted some US utilities to retire their dirtiest coal plants early, and meanwhile the Sierra Club’s national Beyond Coal campaign is challenging lawmakers to replace coal plants with cleaner sources of energy.  But proposals to export US coal abroad threaten to undermine these domestic efforts to curb coal consumption and its harmful effects.

The proposals from Arch and Ambre are among the latest coal industry efforts to begin exporting US coal on a truly large scale.  The Powder River Basin contains some of the biggest coal reserves on the planet, and already supplies 40% of US coal demand.  Yet so far only a tiny fraction of that coal is exported to other countries.  Meanwhile demand for coal is growing in nations like China, which is building dozens of new coal plants but threatening to use up its own coal reserves.  Obtaining access to Powder River Basin coal would greatly increase China’s ability to remain coal dependent, and would dramatically reduce the growing economy’s incentive to shift to clean energy sources.

Partly for this reason, environmental groups in the Pacific Northwest are kicking into gear to prevent coal export proposals from going forward.  The citizen advocacy group Columbia Riverkeeper believes the impacts on the climate are too great to allow the Columbia to become a coal export zone. 

Environmental groups also point out that pollutants like mercury, which come from power plants burning coal in China, tend to blow right back across the Pacific to pollute the air and water in the western United States.  Columbia Riverkeeper, the Sierra Club, and other groups have already indicated they will put up a fight to prevent new coal export terminals from being built.  They certainly have experience fighting and stopping fossil fuel projects in the region: the Sierra Club is now working to shut down to existing coal plants in the region—Oregon’s Boardman Plant and Washington’s TransAlta Plant.  Meanwhile the last four years have seen environmentalists fight, so far successfully, to prevent import terminals for the fossil fuel liquefied natural gas from being built on the Columbia River. 

Before they can successfully export Powder River Basin coal, Arch and Ambre must obtain permission to build new ports on the Columbia, or to use existing ports for coal exports.  Considering the willingness of environmental groups to oppose their proposals, the two giant coal companies may be in for a fight.

Photo credit: MoToMo on Flickr

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