08/08/2013 03:39 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2013

U.S. Coal Exports

While President Obama's Climate Action Plan combined with the age of the coal power plants might suggest the death knell for coal in the U.S., a closer look suggests otherwise.

Demand for coal in the U.S. might be declining, but since 2000 it has been the fastest growing energy source around the world.

According to the AP, coal exports reached their highest levels since 1991 and 2011 and have doubled since 2006.

But if coal use but not mining in the U.S. is reduced, the environmental and health hazards affiliated with mining will remain in U.S. communities.

As Amanda Starbuck, Director of Rainforest Action Network's Energy and Finance Program, put it in an interview: "The way to address climate change is to keep coal in the ground. Rather than funding coal, we should fund renewable energy."

While mountain top removal is on the wane east of the Mississippi, to the west coal mining is on the up.

Most of the coal in the region is low-grade or dirty coal and on public land, that is, owned by taxpayers. The Department of Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) administers it, leasing the mineral rights to private companies.

The BLM has also sold off or leased vast land parcels in past years to private companies for resource extraction. These companies often secure the land at low costs, in what is essentially a giveaway to private industry subsidized by taxpayer dollars. Concerns abound about the BLM's coal program, and in particular, its level of returns and oversight of emissions.

According to Climate Progress, the federal coal program overseen by the Department of Interior's Bureau of Land Management "has a long history of problems and scandal" and "is under scrutiny, by the Department of Interior's inspector general office, the Government Accountability Office, and outside analysts."

"An inspector general's report released last month," the article continues, "found that the BLM had failed... to competitively lease coal tracts and to guarantee the U.S. Treasury receives fair market value for public coal... taxpayers had been shortchanged $62 million."

As Mary Ann Hitt, Beyond Coal, Sierra Club, said in an interview: "We would have loved to see sweetheart deals stopped in the West, where public lands are leased and sold off at far below market value. It's unfair to taxpayers."

It was this use of public lands for extraction that Tim DeChristopher, Bidder 70, sought to disrupt at a public auction in 2008, for which he was sentenced with a felony to up to 10 years in prison. He served 21 months and says he does not regret his action.

Once extracted, the mined coal travels by rail from the Powder River Basin, located in northeast Wyoming and southeast Montana, to the West Coast. Top U.S. coal producers Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, and Cloud Peak Energy currently operate in the Powder River Basin.

A proposed route aims to ship coal mined in the Powder River Basin north and west through Montana and Idaho, to Washington and Oregon, to the coast and eventually to a proposed port in Cherry Point, Washington.

From there, it would be shipped to places further west, such as China or India.

Local opposition to the increased mining and shipping of coal has been fierce. Over the past year, green groups and local opposition have shut down three of six proposed shipping terminals in the Pacific Northwest. Three proposed ports remain: in Cherry Point, Wash., (north of Bellingham); in Longview, Wash.; and in Boardman, Ore.

Matt Krogh, Power Past Coal, a coalition of over 100 groups, said the opposition consisted of a broad-based coalition of people, who were all impacted and concerned, even if in very different ways.

"The ports were opposed by Native American tribes," Krogh said in an interview, "especially the Lummi Nation, because the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal was located on their traditional fishing site and a sacred burial ground. Opposition also came from ranchers and farmers, doctors living in the area around Bellingham, Amish in Wyoming. The farmers and ranchers are pro-wind and solar to protect their farms and ranches. The coalition is really broad because so many people are effected by this plan."

"Take for example the San Juan Islands in Washington State. Their entire economy is based on tourism. So there, the Chamber of Commerce is involved."

Brett VandenHeuvel, with the Columbia Riverkeeper, a group that forms part of Power Past Coal, said in an interview, "adding all that pollution runs directly counter to all the salmon recover efforts."

VandenHeuvel added that "60 tribunes have collectively come out in opposition to the proposed ports. That is a big sign of solidarity itself."

Krogh continued: "The issue could be the site or the traffic. Near Bellingham, Washington, there are trains heading to Vancouver. Towns used to see one train come through every few days. Now, they are seeing full trains, 3 or 4 of them, coming through every single day."

"The impacts are so many -- on health, environment, traffic, economy -- that a whole range of constituents are opposed."

In May, the groups petitioned the Army Corps of Engineers to undertake a systems-wide Environmental Impact Statement on the effects of the proposed export terminals.

Exporting coal produces emissions and burning it elsewhere obviously does not reduce carbon emissions internationally or solve global warming.

It remains to be seen if the U.S. will phase out coal domestically and merely displace its harmful effects to developing economies, especially China and India, or phase it out altogether.