There has lately been some discussion of a proposed giant terminal in Washington State for the exporting of coal (originating in Wyoming and Montana) to China. The Governor, predictably, is all for it, environmentalists are predictably against it.
The latter bring up many points, most of which I am not qualified to comment on. One that is interesting, though, is the accusation that in approving the terminal, the relevant authorities failed to take into account the effects it would have on the global climate. Basically, this makes sense – burning coal is bad, this project would make the burning of coal easier, thus it shouldn’t move forward. But I think its more complex than that. I’ll note right here that their other objections may well be right – I’m concerned only with the idea that we shouldn’t be exporting coal to China.
George Will has written repeatedly about coal consumption in China. His argument seems to be setting up the conclusion that since China will still burn fossil fuels, we shouldn’t bother reducing our own emissions. While I don’t agree with this conclusion, he has a point – even if we stop using fossil fuels entirely in the US, as long as we are buying our products from China, we are party to the CO2 emissions that China is producing. (Okay, that’s not really his point, but it follows logically from his arguments).
So my question is – if we are still buying Chinese products, who are we to not sell them the coal to make them? Ideally, we wouldn’t be buying everything from China, but lo, we are. Moreover, not selling coal to China won’t stop them from burning coal. They’ll just burn their own; the reason they want ours is that their coal is higher in sulfur, and in many cases hard to get from the coal mines to the power plants where it’s needed. And it is the consequences of them burning their own that makes selling them our coal not only value neutral, but in my opinion very important. Chinese coal costs in lives- at least five thousand Chinese miners a year die in coal mines. High sulfur coal, which constitutes most Chinese reserves, is hell on people’s health – look at what happened when the Soviet Union decided to take the “whatever burns” approach towards choosing what coal to use. Burning high sulfur coal in China, with its huge population densities, limited ability to scrub coal emissions, and huge demand for fuel, is a crime against the millions of Chinese who suffer respiratory ailments because of where they live and against Chinese rivers and lakes that suffer from incredible levels of acid rain.
Like I said, the opponents of this coal terminal may be right, it may be a raw deal for the county and there may be environmental effects that haven’t been explored. But as far as its effect on China goes, I think that exporting coal to them has to be seen as a victory for both the environment and human standards of life.