THE BLOG
05/22/2013 12:37 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2013

Coal Exports, Bad for the Environment -- Duh

Coal exports are good for the environment -- they are actually saying this. In Oregon and Washington State the coal industry has been pushing this line at town hall meetings, government hearings, and lobby visits.

Peabody Energy and Arch Coal are in on the ruse. The tenuously solvent Australian company Ambre Energy is certainly involved. So is Cloud Peak, an ironic moniker for an offshoot of the infamous Rio Tinto -- a nation-less company defiantly named after acid mine drainage.

Counter-intuitively, having bought BNSF Railway to profit from coal exports, Warren Buffett seems to be tooting the horn for companies doing poorly in the stock market year after year. With more money than God, Buffett is probably just hedging that the U.S. coal industry's last gasp will be trying for massive exports. It's really too bad if he's giving old coal hope.

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The seemingly logical argument is that because coal from the Powder River Basin (PRB) in Wyoming and Montana is relatively low in sulfur getting Asia to burn it would mean less sulfur dioxide (SO2) polluting the Pacific Northwest. Possible importers are not just China, but Japan, South Korea, India, and elsewhere.

The argument is false. Although PRB coal is lower in sulfur than most U.S. coal, it is higher in sulfur than other coal on the global market, including exports from Indonesia, Mongolia and Australia. This is in part because the energy content of PRB coal is lower per ton than other types of low-sulfur, sub-bituminous coal available internationally. You have to burn more per watt, producing more emissions per watt. PRB coal emissions of SO2 per watt is about average compared to competing non-U.S. coals on the market now.

SO2 emissions are not just a matter of sulfur in coal. Coal-fired power plants in Southeast Asia often have pollution controls to scrub SO2 before it exits the smokestack. About 40 percent of coal plants in the United States lack SO2 scrubbers. Modern coal plants built in China pollute less than typical U.S. coal plants, and pollutant standards in SE Asia broadly are better than U.S. standards.

No pollution-control technology can deal with coal's widespread environmental impacts. PRB coal is not just average in sulfur, and low in energy, but it is relatively high in mercury.

Even without exports of high-mercury PRB coal to Asia, about 18 percent of the mercury contamination in the Western United States is due to coal combustion across the Pacific. It wafts across the ocean in dust clouds. Half of U.S. waterways are closed to swimming and fishing mostly due to mercury contamination. EPA has found that mercury concentrations in fish exceeds safe levels in 49 percent of lakes and reservoirs. Mercury causes damage to nearly every major organ, leading to thousands of deaths and harming the development of over 400,000 babies every year in the United States. This is why EPA finally promulgated the first-ever mercury pollution standard for coal-fired power plants, the largest source of mercury pollution.

What should irk American taxpayers of all stripes is that most PRB coal is owned by us. The federal government sells it for about $1 per ton, ripping us off to let coal magnates destroy public lands and pollute the country. According to industry analysis, U.S. coal exporters can profit at a price of $60 per ton for Asian customers, who have paid as much as $140 per ton in recent years. The subsidized price for US coal is likely already undercutting Australian and Indonesian coal producers, who have to export more to make the same amount of money. Exports beget exports.

Fossil fuel sympathizing defeatists say 'China will just buy coal from someone else!' Why not make some money? They are like slightly self-conscious drug dealers. The truth is PRB coal exports threaten to bolster long term supply and demand for coal, altering energy investment decisions and undermining policies to promote efficiency and renewables. Relatively cheaper and more available coal encourages more coal use now, and it also encourages investment in more coal plant construction. The incessant rise of global coal demand is a fallacy, although a hopeful self-serving prophecy for Peabody and Arch Coal.

PRB coal exports go against policies that aim to reduce coal demand and promote renewables, which already exist in Asia. Endless coal demand in China is a myth, whether or not U.S. coal exporters ever get their permits.

We are beating coal in the United States. When plausible coal plant closures are calculated in terms of domestic U.S. demand, coal use will fall by hundreds of millions of tons of coal.

But port expansion proposals across the country on the table far overwhelm this potential public health success. If coal exporters get their way, all type of pollution from burning American coal would increase. That means not just more CO2, SO2 and mercury, but more arsenic, acid gases, nitrous oxide, soot, lead, selenium, chromium, and ozone (smog). Yes, coal is dirty.

The most important role the federal government plays is selling this taxpayer-owned coal to profit-seeking industry, and it already has sold billions of tons. The Obama White House and Interior Department chose to expand the fire sale. This is why the executive directors of 21 organizations, from the Physicians for Social Responsibility to Sierra Club, asked the Secretary of Interior to put a moratorium on coal leasing. But the rest of the government doesn't have to be complicit.

  • The Army Corps of Engineers could deny permits to coal export infrastructure projects, such as dredging for ports.
  • EPA could cry foul on these projects under the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and other laws.
  • The Department of Transportation could reconsider public funding for infrastructure predominantly used by coal exporters, such as railway crossings and harbors going westward from the PRB.
  • Members of Congress, particularly those Members who sit on committees with oversight of the above agencies, could publicly call that agency decisions favor climate and public health instead of giving coal exporters favor.
  • The President's advisers might realize supporting coal exports is bad for voting constituents.