Kicking the Coal Habit

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.

By Ted Williams/Photography by David T. Hanson
Published: May-June 2012

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.

Magazine Category

Author Profile

Ted Williams

Ted Williams is freelance writer.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

Comments

What you can do - more ideas

On Facebook, like "Allies and Friends Fighting NW Coal Exports." On this page I link news (including, soon, this article) and resources for commenting on the various government decisions that are required for coal exports. Other ideas too. I will email to those who don't use Facebook.

Visit Sightline.org, a Seattle-based sustainabilty think tank that does credible research on coal exports, and other sustainabilty topics.

Visit PowerPastCoal.org, and sign petitions for the commenting opportunities.

Visit CoalSwarm.org, a global clearinghouse with info on impacts of coal worldwide. It's on Twitter,too.

Keep flexing your wonderful First Amendment Rights to the press, to petition your government, to assemble, to speak out, and practice your religion. All of these rights can help fight coal.

A Collectable Critique

Hey Drew:
First critique I’ve gotten from an admitted non-reader. Thanks. Interesting and collectable. Had you read the piece and responded to what I wrote instead of what you imagine I wrote, you’d have seen that nowhere did I “slam fossil fuels as dirty and untenable” and that I made the some point you do--that we “can’t go cold turkey on fossil fuels.”

Furthermore

I am always interested to read the "environmentalists" bent on hydro carbons and the consumption there of. Having been involved in companies that provide wind energy, solar energy and yes, even coal and oil and gas derived energies, I find above articles to be rather short sited and even ignorant to the degree that they are often founded on emotion and opinion rather than defendable facts. The technologies that are now available to energy, mining and drilling companies is nothing short of amazing and even cost effective. The argument that should be discussed at the table is exactly as my friend above has stated - how can we apply technology to our existing practices to make extraction, mining and drilling more safe and environmentally sound. The idea of a hydrocarbon free society at this stage of human development is a thing of fantasy and fiction. Where government MUST subsidize wind and to some degree solar, the bad guys (aka miners and drillers) actually build businesses with something called revenue. Additionally, it should be understood by all environmentalists that the Hybrid engine, the tires on the cars, the soles of your shoes and the thread stitching your clothing is a product or by-product of one hydrocarbon or another... not to mention, where we would store all the waist should we go to the land of lollypops and unicorns, where do all the metal products get dumped, the stoves, engines, copper wire and even nails and screws that hold the world together?? There is a solution and as stated, be patient and apply your knowledge to answering the questions, not just asking them.

Furthermore

I am always interested to read the "environmentalists" bent on hydro carbons and the consumption there of. Having been involved in companies that provide wind energy, solar energy and yes, even coal and oil and gas derived energies, I find above articles to be rather short sited and even ignorant to the degree that they are often founded on emotion and opinion rather than defendable facts. The technologies that are now available to energy, mining and drilling companies is nothing short of amazing and even cost effective. The argument that should be discussed at the table is exactly as my friend above has stated - how can we apply technology to our existing practices to make extraction, mining and drilling more safe and environmentally sound. The idea of a hydrocarbon free society at this stage of human development is a thing of fantasy and fiction. Where government MUST subsidize wind and to some degree solar, the bad guys (aka miners and drillers) actually build businesses with something called revenue. Additionally, it should be understood by all environmentalists that the Hybrid engine, the tires on the cars, the soles of your shoes and the thread stitching your clothing is a product or by-product of one hydrocarbon or another... not to mention, where we would store all the waist should we go to the land of lolly pops and unicorns, where do all the metal products get dumped, the stoves, engines, copper wire and even nails and screws that hold the world together?? There is a solution and as stated, be patient and apply your knowledge to solutions, not only questions.

"A Hydrocarbon -free Society" Huh?

Dear Anonymous: Who’s pushing for a “hydrocarbon free society?” As you state (and as I reported) we need coal. So why are you okay with sending so much of our coal to China?

C'mon...

This is a long article you're asking people to read, but I was prepared to wade through and see if there was any good learning to be had. (Plus, we Red Sox fans are captivated by anything with the name "Ted Williams" on it.) Fortunately or unfortunately, I never got past the fourth paragraph, where the author ludicrously blame an advertising slogan for gambling addictions and unethical behavior. By blithley dismissing the free will and sense of personal responsibility we all do or should possess, he undercuts his credibility and makes it pointless to read on. Even those of us with a more progressive mindset understand why conservatives paint these types of liberals as arrogant know-it-alls whose attempts to educate the rest of us reek with condescension. The fact is, slamming fossil fuels as dirty and untenable is a lazy and oversimplified argument. For one thing, we need ALL fuels to power our economy, particularly until technology allows us to use rewnewables as a baseload power. Secondly, NO energy production is completely clean. You think solar panels and wind turbines are made of pixie dust and unicorn tears? No, they're made of metals and chemicals and things that need to be mined and processed and manufactured and transported on fuel-burning trucks and trains. They also require space to generate energy and transmission lines to move that energy to places like the Audobon Society's offices. The world is making great progress on new energy technologies - not only wind and solar and biofuels but, yes, "cleaner" approaches to using coal - but we have to be patient and stop naively demanding the world go cold turkey on fossil fuels today. It's simply not possible. It's like demanding an iPad in 1985 - just wait a few years (or decades) and we'll get there....

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