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What About The Climate Change Costs Of Exporting Coal?

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The prospect of exporting coal from Wyoming and Montana to be sold on the Asian market has many raising questions about the local and regional environmental impacts of moving that coal through the Northwest.

But once that coal is burned in Asia, the carbon dioxide that will be emitted will contribute to a more global environmental problem — climate change.

It’s a problem that environmental groups, dozens of tribes and elected officials have voiced concern over in recent months.

WATCH COAL, A KCTS9/EarthFix original documentary. Online now and premiering on TV Wednesday on KCTS9 and OPB Television

At the final hearing for the Gateway Pacific Terminal — the largest of the three remaining proposed terminals — which was held in Seattle, 12-year-old Rachel Howell captivated the audience. But unlike many who spoke before her, she didn’t talk about coal dust or train traffic. She talked about climate change.

“My generation will pay a high price for the global warming that you do,” Howell said, the slight waver in her voice betraying her age. “This is the future that you’re creating for us and this isn’t the future that we want so please don’t build these coal export terminals, it’s just not fair to my generation.”

Howell’s words were met with loud applause and some watery eyes from the overwhelmingly anti-coal Seattle audience. She’s not alone in her call to consider climate change in the review of the proposed coal export facilities in Washington and Oregon.

But just how much would those exports contribute to global CO2 emissions?

Combined, if all three terminals are built, there would be about 100 million tons of coal leaving the Northwest each year. If all of that coal is burned, that would equate to a little less than 1 percent of the global CO2 emissions from energy in 2012.

“Are the emissions that come out of the West Coast if they export that coal going to make or break climate change? No. Is how we deal with that going to set an important precedent for other fuels and future more comprehensive policy? Yes it is,” says Richard Morse, former director of research on coal and carbon markets at Stanford University.

On Tuesday, the Army Corps of Engineers indicated it will not consider the impacts of climate change in the environmental review for the Gateway Pacific Terminal.

Bob Watters of SSA Marine, the company that wants to build the Gateway Pacific Terminal, says climate change has no place in the environmental review.

“This is the kind of precedent that precludes our country from being able to go ahead and continue to expand our exports,” he says. “Actually, what it will do is constrict the exports that we have in our country and our economy.”

Watters isn’t alone. The Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, as well as several elected officials and labor unions, have publicly echoed his sentiments.

“It’s a real slippery slope,” Watters says. “If you look at the greenhouse gas effects of a product that we manufacture and export do you look at that with Boeing aeroplanes? The jets Boeing produces and sells to the international airlines produce greenhouse gases.”

Unlike Boeing Airplanes, coal is the single largest contributor to global CO2 emissions.

And according to a new report from the International Energy Agency, if emissions continue to increase at the current rate, global average temperatures could increase by up to 9 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century.

The overwhelming majority of scientists agree that the earth’s climate is changing and our green house gas emissions are contributing to that change.

“And what that means for our planet is very serious, in fact what that means for the Pacific Northwest is very serious,” says Dan Jaffe, an atmospheric and climate scientist with the University of Washington in Bothell.

“It means snow packs disappearing, it means major changes to agriculture, major changes to our water resources in this state,” Jaffe says. “We live on water. Its our electricity, its our salmon, its our agriculture, its our recreation, our skiing.”

The U.S. is a major player in the global coal export market – and hopes to be even more competitive in coming years. American coal companies acknowledge that building Northwest export terminals to move Wyoming and Montana coal to the Asian market is critical.

Jaffe says that even though that 100 million tons of exported coal may not single-handedly tip the scales towards global catastrophe, climate change shouldn’t be left out of the conversation.

“If we don’t consider the climate impacts from burning coal, whether it’s here or somewhere far away, pretty much the climate game is over and we lost.”

American coal exports have doubled since 2007. If the three terminals are built in the Northwest, that figure could almost double, once again.

But despite the continued increase in American energy exports, the federal government has yet to release any sort of national policy that would take climate change-causing emissions from those exports into account.

You can hear more from Rachel Howell, Bob Watters and Dan Jaffe. They’re among the people featured in the documentary, COAL, which airs Wednesday night at 7:30 on KCTS channel 9 and 10 PM Wednesday night on OPB Television.

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