Global Warming, Local Coal

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The opposition to the exploitation of Otter Creek Coal, like the opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, is increasingly using the threat of global warming as a trump card. The ever-increasing threat of weather disasters likely exacerbated by rising temperatures makes this argument particularly compelling: what benefit is a temporarily better economy if it comes with a devastated ecosystem? However, while I find it hard to deny anthropogenic climate change, I think using it as an effective argument against local coal exploitation ought to require critics prove two things, and I’m not sure they’ve proven either.

First, it remains doubtful that the Otter Creak coal development is going to have an appreciable impact on climate change. Coal burning produces approximately 20 percent of global greenhouse emissions. That’s significant, but when you consider there exist probably around 1000 billion tons of coal in the world, and the coal in question constitutes 1.3 billions tons thereof, the significance seems rather diminished. If that coal stays in the ground, but we burn the rest of the coal in the world, the difference will be negligible.

The next question is whether withholding coal from the world market is generally an advisable strategy. I’ve already noted that our unwillingness to export coal to China is frankly disastrous from a human rights perspective, as it encourages the greater mining in exceedingly dangerous conditions and the burning of more health-hazardous coal in a country with a high population density. The important question about Otter Creek on a global scale is an economic one – will cutting that source of coal off the market have the effect of either reducing energy consumption or encourage the use of alternative energy sources? That to me seems overly optimistic. It seems much more likely (though I don’t claim to be a expert) that the result will instead be an increase in cheaper, more locally available (and less extensively traded) lignite, the consumption of which, particularly on the developing world, is increasing. That would certainly be the opposite of the desired effect.

Ultimately, every energy development project is going to require consideration of both local and global factors. It seems to me, however, that opposing every fossil fuel project proposed on the basis that it contributes to global warming is foolish. Instead, it is important to consider both the potential impact of the project on the overall global warming situation, and the consequences of exploiting the likely alternatives. This depth of analysis seems to be lacking on any side of the current debate.

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The Polish Wolf

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The Polish WolfMatthew KoehlerMoorcatSSHCraig Moore Recent comment authors
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larry kurtz
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The United Kingdom has been doing research on in situ gasification but it’s still a gleam in regional eyes:

http://www.wyomingbusinessreport.com/article.asp?id=63415

Ingemar Johansson
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Ingemar Johansson

Sell ’em the damn stuff. The sooner the better.

Right now China have these incinerators that burn trash and China produces 25% of the world’s garbage.

So, a little coal fly ash or tires and plastic bottle smoke. You decide.

http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidferris/2012/06/19/chinas-waste-to-power-plants-burn-more-coal-than-trash/

Mark Tokarski
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Mark Tokarski

Your argument is an excellent exposition of the fallacy of market solutions to global problems. Each tiny cog in the market regards itself as insignificant and therefor has little incentive to change its behavior.

The large solutions that we need to these problems are effectively precluded by advocacy of market solutions and demonization of government. Ergo, nothing is done.

Craig Moore
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Craig Moore

Natural gas is a “market solution.” http://reason.com/blog/2012/08/17/us-carbon-dioxide-emissions-at-20-low-th U.S. Carbon Dioxide Emissions at 20-Year Low Thanks to Fracking Ronald Bailey|Aug. 17, 2012 11:01 am Burn baby burn.The Associated Press reports that new data from the Energy Information Administration shows that U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide emissions are back down to their 1992 levels: In a surprising turnaround, the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere in the U.S. has fallen dramatically to its lowest level in 20 years, and government officials say the biggest reason is that cheap and plentiful natural gas has led many power plant operators to… Read more »

Mark Tokarski
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Mark Tokarski

Agreed. We export pollution to areas of the world where lawsuits are meaningless. Here we merely ridicule and marginalize those bringing the suits. Tort reform would make these lawsuits illegal, bringing us down to third-world standards. The idea of use of marginally better coal sounds suspiciously like lesser evil politics, and here we go again. Marginal goals are a weak palliative, a way of insinuating that strong and strategic opposition to entrenched power is unwise. Even if strong opposition does not work, it is then identical in outcome to lesser-evil solutions, so what the hell. I go for full-frontal opposition.… Read more »

Craig Moore
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Craig Moore

As to linking weather events to temperature, I would advise following the caution that Dr. Pielke, jr. points to: http://rogerpielkejr.blogspot.com/2012/04/pushing-back-on-extreme-nonsense.html Cliff Mass and Mike Wallace at the University of Washington have expressed some thoughts on the hype associated with climate change and extreme events. Mass writes on his blog: It is happening frequently lately. A major weather event occurs—perhaps a hurricane, heat wave, tornado outbreak, drought or snowstorm– and a chorus of activist groups or media folks either imply or explicitly suggest that the event is the result of human-caused (anthropogenic) global warming. Perhaps the worst offender is the organization… Read more »

Moorcat
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Craig, I too, have read the IPCC report and while the author of the post you link cherry picked parts of that report, they failed to mention that there is counter evidence to suggest that these record weather events could – at the very least – be increasing in magnitude due to climate change. What the IPCC report didn’t do is make a determination one way or the other whether the current climate change is due to anthropomophic causes. They basically punted that down the road by saying that more study should be done. In short, the authors of the… Read more »

Ingemar Johansson
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Ingemar Johansson

You tell ’em MC.

A cherry picking claim jumper.

Moorcat
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Once again, your one liner made absolutely no sense at all. You are really losing your touch, Ingy.

SSH
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SSH

PW: I appreciate your paying attention to this issue, which receives far too little critical analysis. That said, the points you raise have already been answered. They do not justify exporting Montana and Wyoming coal to Asia. First, as a matter of protocol, when there is a proposal to undertake a project that might cause significant environmental or social harm, the burden of proof should be on the project proponent to demonstrate that the project will not cause significant harm. This is called the precautionary principle. It is widely accepted. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Precautionary_principle. So, it is not the critics of coal export… Read more »

Mark Tokarski
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Mark Tokarski

As Mr. Koehler below says, thanks for the excellent analysis. I was put off by the notion that using coal only 5% less dirty was somehow a positive value, and your evidence that our coal will increase coal use overall probably makes that small bit of cleanliness a moot point.

The Polish Wolf
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The Polish Wolf

Thank you very much, SSH. I hope to see more of you on this site! You are correct in that it is legally incumbent upon the potential polluter to prove that their effects on the environment be limited. However, when you apply that to a global scale and the economic impact on global markets, the ‘potential polluter’ becomes far more broad. For example, a rancher preventing a natural gas development in their area or a village opposing the construction of wind turbines in their line of sight is effectively (if we are using your economic criterion for ‘impact’) increasing CO2… Read more »

SSH
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SSH

PW: I appreciate the challenges you raise, but I cannot agree with you on a number of points. First, you again suggest that the approximately one billion tons of coal in Otter Creek is insignificant from the perspective of global climate change. Of course, if one makes the denominator or relative group of comparison sufficiently large, any number can seem small. You do this by comparing the billion tons of coal at Otter Creek to fifty years of coal consumption in China. In another perspective, if you consider that one billion tons of coal equals the entire annual coal consumption… Read more »

The Polish Wolf
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The Polish Wolf

“First, you again suggest that the approximately one billion tons of coal in Otter Creek is insignificant from the perspective of global climate change.” I think you misunderstood me, or I made my point poorly. My reason for bringing up the 50 year time frame was the same as the reasoning for using the 50 year time frame – the question is one of economics, not ecology. Burning that coal will haven an effect, if the options are burning it or not burning. But it’s not as simple as that, which is what your white paper was addressing. It has… Read more »

Craig Moore
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Craig Moore

Just like natural gas was the driver in the US for changing from coal, China should follow the lead with its reserves: http://www.economist.com/node/21558457

Matthew Koehler
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Matthew Koehler

SSH, Thanks for your excellent comments on this subject. I hope you’ll continue to offer your insights and perspective in the future. Good luck.

Craig Moore
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Craig Moore

See also: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2012/08/120808-china-shale-gas/

Because natural gas generates electricity with half the carbon dioxide emissions of coal, China’s primary power source, the hope is that shale development, if it is done in an environmentally sound manner, will help pave the way to a cleaner energy future for the world’s number one greenhouse gas producer. “Clean, rapid shale gas development in China would reduce global emissions,” says Julio Friedmann, chief energy technologist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, which has been working with the Chinese on environmentally sound fracking practices.

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