Kicking the Coal Habit
America may be coming to grips with the dark side of our cheapest, most abundant energy source, but a plan to unload it on Asia threatens to poison our planet.
But the main threat comes not from Montana or even Wyoming. It comes from the federal government, which owns the vast majority of the coal reserves in both states. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who proclaims that "the realities of climate change require us to change how we manage the land, water, fish, and wildlife," has begun selling mining rights to an estimated 3.7 billion tons of Powder River Basin coal.
Meanwhile, Bellingham officials and chamber-of-commerce types whoop it up for port expansion to facilitate coal export to Asia while simultaneously bragging about awards the city has received from the EPA and Natural Resources Defense Council for quitting fossil fuel. And they excoriate Bellingham's medical and environmental communities for voicing concerns about disruption from expanded coal-train traffic, increased global warming, massive coal dust pollution, and damage to fisheries.
Seattle Audubon director Shawn Cantrell says this: "It doesn't make sense on many levels--from climate change to extraction problems to transport problems. We don't want these mega-trains with the volumes they're talking about coming through our communities. This is a particularly bad product because there's so much coal dust that just coats everything. We're going to have a monumental fight because coal is still huge in parts of the country. Washington can lead the trend on the export issue."
Like the city, the state has committed to renewable energy, and it has legislated strict greenhouse-gas limits that include a forced shutdown of its single, though enormous, coal-fired power plant by 2025. In addition, the plant's owner, TransAlta, must contribute $55 million for economic development and investments in clean energy and energy efficiency.
But the boosters don't see a problem with exporting greenhouse gases that threaten the entire planet or exporting poisons that will damage human and non-human life not only in Asia but the United States, especially Washington--one of the closest downwind states. The hypocrisy is breathtaking, reminiscent of America's banning DDT domestically but clearing it for export--a statement to the world that we considered this carcinogen too dangerous for everyone save foreigners.
"If we don't make money poisoning Asians, other countries will," is the basic pitch. Summarizing in The Seattle Times, Ken Oplinger, president/CEO of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce & Industry, and Chris Johnson, vice president of the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council, write: "Stopping the terminal will not stop China from using coal; the world has plenty. ... Frankly, what we should be concentrating on is taking care of our local environment." A similar moral case could be made for whacking a key witness because Bugs Moran had already put out the hit and someone else would have collected the fee anyway.
Actually, providing China with the world's cheapest coal will merely ensure a long-term commitment to it while removing incentives to improve plant efficiency and seek alternate fuels, all of which are cleaner. There is nothing "startling" about this, notes natural resources watchdog and former University of Montana economics professor Thomas Power. "Lower prices and costs encourage consumption. Higher prices and costs discourage consumption."
When all is said, however, there's some cause for optimism. Public outrage in Montana, Wyoming, Washington, and Ore-gon is mounting to the point that at least one expert is betting against major export of Powder River Basin coal. "Most folks see it as a lose-lose proposition for the environment and local economies," remarks Nancy Hirsh, policy director for the Northwest Energy Coalition, an alliance of environmental groups, civic and human-services organizations, and businesses, including utilities. "I don't think there will be a lot of success because of the public outcry. Oregon and Washington have commitments to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. And yet here we're going to grant permits for coal exports and transport our problem across the ocean? It just doesn't ring true to public-policy makers."
While Hirsh hardly articulates the majority opinion, other encouraging news cannot be debated. The few U.S. coal plants on the drawing board face daunting requirements. For example, while Southwestern Electric Power Company still plans to build its Turk plant in Arkansas (See "Smoke on the Water," January-February 2008), a legal settlement forced by Audubon and the Sierra Club in December 2011 requires the company to retire its dirty Welsh 2 plant in Texas, create 400 megawatts of wind or solar power, contribute $10 million for land conservation and energy efficiency, and limit additional plants and transmission lines.
Across the nation students, some wearing "Kick-Ash" skivvies, are demonstrating against on-campus coal plants. At Michigan State University, students staged a sit-in to protest health hazards posed to themselves and East Lansing residents by the school's coal-fired power plant. Twenty colleges and universities have promised to quit coal by signing on to the Sierra Club's Campuses Beyond Coal initiative.
Finally, the new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards and Cross-State Air Pollution Rule will annually prevent as many as 46,000 premature deaths and provide at least $150 billion in benefits, at least according to the EPA. And the agency recently announced carbon-dioxide limits for new power plants and major upgrades.