Energy | Ecotrope

Exporting coal: A 'worst-case scenario' for some

Ecotrope | Nov. 23, 2010 4:32 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:44 p.m.

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This New York Times story offers some global perspective on today’s Cowlitz County Commission vote to approve a coal export terminal in Longview, Wash.

The story explains that the U.S. currently ships coal to China through Canada, but that this new terminal proposal is evidence of a global push to feed Asia’s enormous appetite for energy:

Traditionally, coal is burned near where it is mined — particularly so-called thermal or steaming coal, used for heat and electricity. But in the last few years, long-distance international coal exports have been surging because of China’s galloping economy, which now burns half of the six billion tons of coal used globally each year.

As a result, not only are the pollutants that developed countries have tried to reduce finding their way into the atmosphere anyway, but ships chugging halfway around the globe are spewing still more.

And the rush to feed this new Asian market has helped double the price of coal over the past five years, leading to a renaissance of mining and exploration in many parts of the world.

“This is a worst-case scenario,” said David Graham-Caso, spokesman for the Sierra Club, which estimates that its “Beyond Coal” campaign has helped to block 139 proposed coal plants in the United States over the last few years. “We don’t want this coal burned here, but we don’t want it burned at all. This is undermining everything we’ve accomplished.”

While developed countries have made it harder to build new coal-fired power plants, they do not restrict coal mining to the same extent, the story reports, because emissions standards focus on where the fuel is burned, and because coal is a lucrative business that creates a lot of mining jobs.

Thanks to Asia, coal is the fastest-growing fuel in the world, said Peabody Energy VP Vic Svec. The Longview terminal proposal fits into a growing trend in the U.S.:

“Last year, the United States exported only 2,714 tons of coal to China, according to the United States Energy Information Administration. Yet that figure soared to 2.9 million tons in the first six months of this year alone — huge growth, though still a minuscule fraction of China’s coal imports.

New mines are planned to expand the market further. Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm, is suing to block the lease of state-owned land in Otter Creek, Mont., to Arch Coal for mining to serve demand in Asia and elsewhere. Likewise, Peabody Energy and Australia’s Ambre Energy have been separately expanding mines and exploring the idea of opening loading ports in the Pacific Northwest.”

The story also mentions that the Port of Tacoma decided on Friday that it would not host a proposed coal-loading plant.

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