Lots of questions and no answers about coal exports

June 23, 2013 

“Unless we can stop these coal terminals from being built and keep our coal in the ground where it belongs, Washington state coal exports will be responsible for hastening the advance of climate change here at home and around the world.”

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn in testimony before Congress Tuesday Well, that’s the real issue, isn’t it?

The proposal to export Powder River Basin coal to Asia from ports in Washington and Oregon is being fought by the environmental community nationwide, with all the power and fright it can muster. Many issues are raised, from the diesel exhaust and coal-dust pollution from train after train after train, to traffic congestion and infrastructure overload and related economic disruption.

Interesting issues, but small compared with the real concern: Burning coal for electricity, anywhere, contributes mightily to atmospheric greenhouse gases and climate change, so selling coal to China will increase worldwide greenhouse emissions and threaten the environment.

Forbid China that coal, and leave it in the ground as McGinn suggests, and it won’t be burned, therefore greenhouse gas emissions will be less.

Is that right? Will keeping U.S. coal “in the ground where it belongs” reduce coal burning and greenhouse gases? Or will China and Korea and Japan and India merely shift to other sources of supply and belch out atmospheric carbon at the same horrific pace?

It’s an important question. If China’s coal burning isn’t slowed by the lack of U.S. fuel, the United States will miss out on the economic benefits of energy exports, with many middle-class jobs, for absolutely no environmental gain.

I want to know the answer. I want the answer from a neutral and authoritative source. I don’t want to rely on environmental or industrial analysis filtered through their political bias. The Army Corps of Engineers, responsible for granting permits for giant coal export terminals at Cherry Point near Bellingham, and the Port of Longview, said it won’t even consider the question. Deep philosophy or enviro-macroeconomic theory is beyond its mandate and expertise.

The Corps’ regulatory chief Jennifer Moyer told Congress on Tuesday the question of coal exports’ effect on climate change is not its concern. For that matter, neither are the peripheral issues of trains and dust and related gunk. Those are “outside the Corps’ control and responsibility for the permit applications related to the proposed projects.”

This is understandable, but disappointing. The consensus is this is a setback for the environmental opponents of coal exports. Industry and business cheered the Corps’ decision. The Corps “dealt a major blow to greens” said Politico. They assume a thorough environmental study would show how dirty coal exports can be.

But the answer is not so obvious. Some analysts suggest U.S. coal exports, although they would be just a fraction of the Chinese supply, would lower prices there, encourage coal use, price out cleaner sources of energy and do much harm.

Others, at Stanford University for one, suggest that forbidding coal exports will increase supplies and lower prices in the United States, and therefore encourage coal use here and make coal-fired electricity cheaper than its cleaner competitors, and produce even more greenhouse gases than if the coal was exported.

The Corps of Engineers is not interested. I can’t blame them. It’s complex, and whatever conclusion they make is likely to end up in court. Instead, policymakers will have to rely on their own inexpert judgment and propaganda from every direction, and the final say will come from a law school graduate making serious scientific and economic judgments far beyond their expertise or abilities.

This is how we make big decisions, for better or worse ... often worse.

Tracy Warner is a Wenatchee World columnist. Email him at warner@wenatcheeworld.com.

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