When will they ever learn….(coal companies)

With declining use of coal in the US the coal has to go somewhere! (so the thinking goes)

With declining use of coal in the US the coal has to go somewhere! (so the thinking goes)

Over the holidays I visited my brother who lives in the Seattle area. While there I was reminded of something I had heard the last time I visited several months ago – there is yet another problem with coal. Since the US coal industry is facing a shrinking domestic market in the past few years (largely due to the increase in hydraulic fracturing releasing natural gas) the companies have been seeking a new outlet for the resource. And they found Asia.

Estimates for new coal-burning plants in the world now number 1,199 with a majority going to China and India.

US coal export have been rising in the past few years as Asian countries and Russia purchase US coal for export. Source

US coal export have been rising in the past few years as Asian countries and Russia purchase US coal for export. Source

For those of you who know me, you know that I have been investing a lot of my time to study coal in its various manifestations across the world, but most especially in America.  This latest visage is the usual, not thinking, or let me be direct – the thinking that is being done is in the old way of modernity, for profit only. The most ecologically aware and least dependent region of America, the Pacific Northwest, is being inundated with coal – about 124 tons a year (2012), far more than they ever burn.  But since they aren’t going to be burning it, but shipping it instead, is it really a problem?

You know the answer already. Of course it is a problem. The shipment of coal through the Pacific Northwest is suffering though due to lack of infrastructure and few ports able to ship so much coal. The answer is simple (according to those linear thinkers) just build more ports on the Pacific Northwest coast.  Simple. And so it seems that everywhere I look Northwestern residents are upset, and are letting people know what could be happening on a grand scale (I say on a grand scale because it is already happening, but not full force). Some of those reporting on the coal blitz coming are Seattle PI, the Sightline Institute, the National Wildlife Federation, NPR and the Portland and Oregon news organizations. I even found a blog that notices the increase in coal exports and commented on how coal exports do not decrease climate change effects. No one seems too excited about the next step, five proposed coal export terminals in Oregon and Washington and what they would entail.

Coal exports have increased as natural gas has increased use in America. Source

Coal exports have increased as natural gas has increased use in America. Source

Of course there are two sides to this story, but the story of the “other” side is getting old. When will they EVER learn? Those who support the coal export terminals and increased shipments of coal to Asia (mostly China, Japan, South Korea, India and transcontinental, Russia)  are the coal companies and whose who might be “lucky” enough to be employed in this project. Why is it that when ever any new jobs are touted in the press it is usually polluting jobs?

Several union leaders and some lawmakers say the region can’t afford to turn down well-paying jobs. The company says the $665 million project will create 1,250 permanent direct and indirect jobs and generate $11 million in tax revenues; critics are skeptical.

“Some groups have demonized a natural resource and they think nobody on the planet should burn this material. I disagree. We need jobs,” said Mike Elliott, chairman of the state’s Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. (Source)

When will we begin to create the jobs that clean up the pollution and create new industrial forms (stopping our wasteful cradle-to-grave consumerism and begin following the Cradle-to-Cradle approach)?  When will we begin to do the math: sub-bituminous coal has a lower heating capacity than bituminous, which means that we get less energy from the same amount of coal mined. We are already doing this with food, where we expend more fossil fuel energy getting our food to the table than we get in calories, now we will be doing the same with low heat coal – spending more fossil fuel energy to ship it across half the continent and then across the Pacific Ocean to burn in Asia and create more greenhouse gas emissions?

But the way we have allowed the system to be set up gives the polluters the money. The people though, are up in arms regarding the dangers of shipping the coal through their fair states, let alone the increased CO2 issues as more coal is burned. The way the equation is working is: the US decreases coal use in favor of still polluting, but less so, natural gas. China continues to use more coal than it can supply, so they purchase what we don’t use. Nothing is gained, and in fact the climate change CO2 pollution will increase. Brilliant.

Most of the coal that is being exported by way of the Pacific Northwest is from the Powder River Basin (Wyoming and Montana) the largest coal producer in America since the Clean Air Act. Don’t worry though, the Appalachian coal companies, those who blow up mountains to get the coal,  have also been increasing their exports (shipping metallurgical coal for making steel). Thanks to some decent legislation many of our coal plants have shut down in the past few years. But let’s just stay on the subject of Powder River Basin coal.  What are the problems with exporting that coal through the Pacific Northwest terminals?

  • It is going to cost the taxpayer, but the profits will go to the companies. I will go more into taxpayer expense in a minute.
  • Increased train and truck traffic will increase pollution in water and air from diesel and coal dust.
  • Sensitive and beautiful regions (the Columbia Gorge for example) will be disturbed along with their wildlife.
  • Terminal construction would devastate the remaining fish habitat in the Pacific Northwest.
  • Possible derailments of trains or ship mishaps causing extensive damage and pollution. The most recent accident occurred last month at Vancouver’s Westshore Terminal, the largest terminal in America. Clean up and repair will take months.
  • Increase in climate change, mercury pollution (from burning coal), and more ocean acidification.

Taxpayer Expense

At a time when Congress should be working to right the budget (why did they take time off over the holidays? What procrastinators, dealing with difficult subjects and then taking a break on our dime- all because they do not want to tell us the truth, because they may not be elected again….) we have yet more of our tax money being spent in ways many of us would never choose.  In order for these mile long trains to continually serve the Pacific Northwest to ship our resources to Asia millions will have to be spent on roads, rail lines, and infrastructure to allow the transport. Most of that money falls on local government coffers (our tax dollars). But that is not all, the big one, and one that few Americans seem to think about is about exporting our natural resources.

Natural resources in their raw or primary state are the least profitable way to export our goods. It is the “value added” manufacturing or processing (like food) where we make the most money. But for some reason the US has been exporting our natural resources (food, timber, and now coal) and allowing others to make money on our resources, our natural wealth – and then sell it back to us. They profit – we pay. It makes no sense, but we keep on doing it.

Many of the minerals sold are “owned” by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) a government agency that “sells” public mineral rights under the obsolete Mining Law of 1872 for next to nothing.  In case you don’t remember, we are the public and it is our money that they are giving away to companies to profit and leave us with the pollution, which, of course, is also paid with taxpayer dollars.  How about dealing with these issues rather than reduce social security and medicare? Do we really want to give away, export, our resources, leaving behind the pollution for us? How smart is that for us, or for coming generations? They won’t be too appreciative with what we have allowed.  There is more to economy (look up the definition to realize what economy really is) than just profit. We need to redefine our idea of wealth and poverty, and live up to the thrifty, efficient, and frugal nature of economy. It is more than dollars and profit. Let me begin with a quote: (Seneca, 1st century AD)

“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.”

Oh , I know, I am out on a limb here, far from the coal export debate, but think about it. Everything is connected. If we changed what we think is correct, we change who we are and how we act. Many now know that wealth alone does not buy happiness. And it is only our system that allows the travesties we live with. It can change.

Proposed coal terminals in a region that has shunned coal for more healthy power sources is obscene. (Source)

Proposed coal terminals in a region that has shunned coal for more healthy power sources.  The six shown proposed terminals is now five. The Gray’s Harbor terminal has abandoned plans. (Source)

But meanwhile there are people in the Pacific Northwest who have perhaps found some scintilla of happiness in a more ecologically aware place, and what is happening? Five coal terminals are selling the jobs they will create, but at the coast of polluting their homes just like the rest of Americans already suffer in one way or another. The Pacific Northwest is not perfect. They have issues of depletion of the fishery, they continue to clear-cut their forests (instead of more sustainable lumber cutting methods). Their waterways are polluted and often hypoxic. But they have also addressed more transportation and urban living issues than other areas have even begun to recognize, let alone address (See Chapter 17 in my book).  Do they really have to have profit hungry coal companies shipping our natural resources out of the country so other countries can increase global warming climate change? Do we really have to destroy more scenic areas, more nature, such as the Columbia River Gorge, just to make more short-term oriented profit? When will we realize that nature is the basis for our great wealth of life on Earth, not our GDP-oriented economy?

The Columbia River Gorge was formed at the end of the last Ice Age during the Missoula Floods. The area is a national scenic area known for its diverse ecological microclimates and habitats.

The Columbia River Gorge was formed at the end of the last Ice Age during the Missoula Floods. The area is a national scenic area known for its diverse ecological microclimates and habitats.

One comment on “When will they ever learn….(coal companies)

  1. Rjass says:

    I think part of the problem is our capitalistic system. As long as corporations hold “rights” over public land and resources, then things are always going to be this way. When there is such a disconnect between what we pay as consumers, and the actual external costs, then these things are always going to be overlooked. Coal is priced by what it cost corporate to get it, not what it costs us [the environment] to use it. You cannot expect them to just turn over a new leaf that is not “profitable” when it is not corporations that have to pay the price. I think theses practices would change if the government stopped subsidizing environmentally damaging practices and started taxing them, or if subsidies were given to “green” corporate practices. If coal extraction was given an environmental tax, or hell, flat out banned, then it would be far to costly for corporations to continue. It would force alternatives, and a complete restructuring of the energy policy. It is our way of thinking, our very culture that has led to such ecologically damaging practices in the first place. We do not want to pay, we do not want to educate, and we certainly do not want to change. The irony of it all is that we are paying a price that can never be regained.

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