Montana Politics

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

27 Comments

  • 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.

    • I agree that there is little chance of a market solution, and that demonizing the government is a powerful tool for industry to make sure there are no other solutions, either.

      I also see another problem, one that plays into the hands of the fossil fuel industry, and that is a lack of perceived environmental priorities. You will find environmental opposition to any fossil fuel project. Now, obviously that opposition is not of equal intensity and many groups do prioritize. But that’s not the public perception, because the public lumps all such groups together in their minds, by and large, and because it doesn’t take much consensus among groups for one of them to file a lawsuit, the legal burdens for all fossil fuel extraction are essentially unfocused. Fortunately for the fossil fuel industry, such groups and their money are concentrated in rich areas of the world.

      And that’s where you get absolutely absurd situations like the one we have with Montana coal. Some environmental groups are all in arms about the idea of Montana exporting coal, linking it to global warming, without really thinking about the impact. If we mined all of Otter Creek and used that energy to replace lignite burning, the net effect on global warming would be small but positive. China has its own coal reserves – they are importing ours because of higher quality coal, which translates to lower and healthier emissions. Similarly, fracking may destroy water supplies and cause earthquakes, but natural gas extraction is also our best bet for reducing our CO2 emissions in the near future.

      So what the situation you have? Well I disagree that nothing is done. Quite a bit has been done in the US to limit the extraction and use of fossil fuels. Some of that is quite laudable. But the result is greater oil, coal, and gas production in poorer countries with less active environmental groups. They are far more likely to lean on dirtier coal, to have fewer safety and health standards for it’s extraction, to engage in natural gas flaring or other wasteful petroleum practices, etc. I’m not saying their no benefit to keeping fossil fuel extraction out of your own backyard – it leaves you with a much prettier, healthier back yard. But if the goal is ostensibly to reduce global CO2 emissions, the calculus has to be different.

    • 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 switch from dirtier-burning coal.

      Many of the world’s leading climate scientists didn’t see the drop coming, in large part because it happened as a result of market forces rather than direct government action against carbon dioxide

      As to clean coal see: http://uonews.uoregon.edu/archive/news-release/2012/8/cooled-coal-emissions-would-clean-air-and-lower-health-and-climate-chang

  • 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. here s no such thing as clean coal. It’s an oxymoron.

    • “The idea of use of marginally better coal sounds suspiciously like lesser evil politics, and here we go again. ”

      That Manichean view of energy, Mark, is unsustainable. Fossil fuels are not evil – they are a fuel with a downside. And that downside can be expressed in a quantifiable way. So, when you are looking right at two sources of coal, why on earth would you oppose them both equally? If you take as your benchmark Zero Emissions, every option is going to seem bad. You must instead take as your benchmark that Status Quo. Switching from lignite to hard coal gives you a 5% savings in CO2 emissions on all the lignite you replace. Yes, you are still burning a fossil fuel, and so you could call it the lesser evil, but when the greater evil is currently in effect, the switch to the lesser is a relative good.

      As Craig pointed out, the same is true writ large with natural gas. Switching from hard coal to natural gas would cut our CO2 emissions from coal by 40%. It would, however, require a lot of natural gas mining and transportation infrastructure, all of which will be opposed by the ‘full frontal opposition’ of people like you. And as Craig’s source points out, these are not hypothetical gains – they have already happened, and can continue to happen, if are strategic about choosing the cleanest of our energy sources.

      There is an alternative, Mark, which is to stop buying things made in China. Their manufacturing will slump, energy demands will decrease, and they won’t want to buy our coal. That’s a lot harder than just suing to stop the exploitation of our coal, but it actually has a global effect, if you can pull it off.

      • You are talking 95% for a different type of coal and acting as if that is something. That is so Democrat! It’s nothing. And I am aware that natural gas is cleaner than oil. It happens to be the business I made my living in.

        But you started out offering up the characteristic element of market failure – the inability to think long term due to short-term needs, and now you are trying to hammer me because I don’t see your palliatives, especially the 95% “cleaner” solution, as particularly useful. Before you get after me for demanding more, stop and realize that what you are offering up is just another way of saying nothing. Your party will OK the pipeline, has let out more oil leases than its predecessor, and is surely supporting the race to the arctic. You got nuthin’!

        The problems as difficult. We need better answers, but also leaders. You offer us neither.

        • Hey Mark –

          5% may seem like a small number, but when you consider that wind energy gives us 3% of our power, that 5% seems like a decent start (obviously the comparison is not perfect, because we don’t depend heavily on lignite – but many countries do). Better than a lawsuit against it provides. And the smallness of the margin doesn’t change the logic of the argument. Think for a second about what you’re arguing –

          “Because the proposed development does not reduce emissions by much, we should disapprove it on the fallacious grounds that it actually increases emissions.”

          I know you want more than anything to drag this into the realm of unprovable generalities, where certainty is impossible and you can just jump into your sweeping polemics that lack specificity to such a degree as to be meaningless. But I’d rather you focus on this here – can you defend the statement, or is it in your mind a falsehood told for some greater cause, the abstract cause of ‘standing up’ or ‘holding accountable’ or some such ineffective, meaningless verbiage?

          • 5% is meaningless. I am glad you feel as though you are offering up something, but nothing is nothing. As mentioned in comments below, additional supply will increase use which will nullify any emission reduction. Again, nothing is nothing.

            It is easy to posture as you do, as your party has power so that your own polemics are oft repeated by leadership, giving you an artificial sheen of credibility. But even so, nothing is nothing.

            Please note here that Democrats cannot support sale of Montana coal as a palliative for excess carbon emissions with a straight face without some sort of industry backing – follow the money. Have you done that? The Democratic Party, as you surely know, is also bought.

            • “5% is meaningless.”

              The comments below,Mark, and intelligent and present an argument. That being behavior we like to encourage on this site, I’ll be responding to them, not to yours, with one exception:

              Total Chinese imports of coal are only 3% of current coal consumption. The majority of their coal is currently sourced from Australia and Indonesia, meaning the portion coming from the United States can’t be higher than 1.5%. If 5% is meaningless, then what do you have to say about 1.5%?

              • The essence of most posts that you put up are to hone in on minutia of policies to offer up what you consider meaningful differences between our two wealth-backed parties. Yet you have never, as far as I can ascertain, ever attempted to draw a connection between money and the behaviors of politicians. Even with the filibuster, which serves the interests of money backers, you studiously avoided any connection and argued hat Democrats were serving their constituencies by enabling the crippling device. It’s as if money does not exist!

                Here you are taking yet another issue on which there is bipartisan agreement – ie – money agrees and the parties follow – and are arguing that the worst of the greenhouse emission producers, coal, should be further developed. First you committed the market failure fallacy, that each player is too small to contribute much, so that use of Otter Creek coal would not substantially affect the overall picture. When I pointed out that this is why markets cannot handle such large issues, you retreated a step and said that well, Otter Creek coal is only 95% as dirty as other coal, and so that the marginal improvement made the deal worthwhile. When it was pointed out that a 5% reduction, when other factors are not controlled, is meaningless, you insisted that 5% is indeed meaningful. I then suggested tha Democrats were responding to money pressure in forcing the issue, and suggested that you follow the money. At that point you said that you wold no longer respond to me, as I am not making good arguments.

                Your whole approach to politics is obfuscatory in that you rarely address the real issue – money backing, or corruption in the “two” party system. Instead you draw personal validation and offer intellectual justification for the Democratic side of our corruption as if money had no sway, as if Democratic candidates have virtues that the other party lacks, as of the other party has vices yours lacks. It a long meander down Pointless Drive. You also use a Kailey device here – insisting that larger issues be ignored while you score tiny points on minutia. It’s diversionary.

                The issue is climate change, CO2 emissions, the long term wealth of the planet. Coal is a huge problem. Our meaningful options at this time are conservation, fuel economy, alternative energy sources. It’s daunting and requires leadership. Your party offers none, nor does the other. THAT is the problem.

                Regarding Otter Creek, if I suggest again that you follow the money. Will you again say that I am not properly debating this issue? If you are unable to face the corruption issue, your political philosophy has no value.

                Your point about 5% and 1.5% is tedious and nonsensical.

                • Let’s try an experiment, Mark. I want you to press ctr-F and type in ‘Democrat’. The word has been used a lot on this threat, but only by you. I’m not supporting one politician or party in this issue. Indeed, Steve Bullock, who I am supporting for governor, voted against leasing Otter Creek under the current terms. Denise Juneau as well. This is not about political parties, it is about discussion a policy issue: is the potential global effect of climate change as part of a larger trend a legitimate argument against a project, if the actual effect of that project on the global trend can be neither quantified nor measured. There are good arguments on both sides, though I’ve made my side clear. Your efforts to steer the debate back towards the parties and their financing reflects your own obsession.

                  Also, please try to come to class prepared-

                  ““Quite a bit has been done in the US to limit the extraction and use of fossil fuels.”

                  That is a false statement.”

                  You might wish to read the white paper helpfully provided below, particularly the heading

                  “U.S. Coal Consumption is Being Limited by Environmental Costs”

                  The US has much more coal than China, and yet China produces three times the coal we do – even though our coal is cheaper and of higher quality. If that has nothing to do without our environmental regulations, what exactly is your explanation? The reading provided gives a pretty good idea.

              • Almost forgot: You said “Quite a bit has been done in the US to limit the extraction and use of fossil fuels.”

                That is a false statement.

  • 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 http://www.350.org and their spokesman Bill McKibben. Close behind is Climate Central, which even has an extreme weather/climate blog. The media has noted many times that the U.S. in 2011 experienced a record 14 billion-dollar weather disasters–and many of the articles imply or suggest a connection with human-forced global warming. Even the NY Times has jumped into the fray recently, giving front-page coverage of an unscientific survey that found that a large majority of Americans believe recent extreme weather events are the result of anthropogenic global warming. One does not have to wonder very hard about where Americans are getting their opinions–and it is not from the scientific community.

    He explains:

    It is somewhat embarrassing for me to admit this, but part of the problem is that a small minority of my colleagues–people who should know better– are feeding the extreme-weather/climate hype in the mistaken belief that by doing so they can encourage people to do the right thing–lessen their carbon footprint.

    Writing in the LA Times yesterday, Mike Wallace takes issue with the cavalier linkage of the March heat wave to human-caused climate change, reminding us that climate is complex…

    and http://rogerpielkejr.blogspot.com/2012/03/handy-bullshit-button-on-disasters-and.html

    The full IPCC Special Report on Extremes is out today, and I have just gone through the sections in Chapter 4 that deal with disasters and climate change. Kudos to the IPCC — they have gotten the issue just about right, where “right” means that the report accurately reflects the academic literature on this topic. Over time good science will win out over the rest — sometimes it just takes a little while.

    A few quotable quotes from the report (from Chapter 4):

    “There is medium evidence and high agreement that long-term trends in normalized losses have not been attributed to natural or anthropogenic climate change”
    “The statement about the absence of trends in impacts attributable to natural or anthropogenic climate change holds for tropical and extratropical storms and tornados”
    “The absence of an attributable climate change signal in losses also holds for flood losses”

    The report even takes care of tying up a loose end that has allowed some commentators to avoid the scientific literature:

    “Some authors suggest that a (natural or anthropogenic) climate change signal can be found in the records of disaster losses (e.g., Mills, 2005; Höppe and Grimm, 2009), but their work is in the nature of reviews and commentary rather than empirical research.”

    With this post I am creating a handy bullshit button on this subject (pictured above). Anytime that you read claims that invoke disasters loss trends as an indication of human-caused climate change, including the currently popular “billion dollar disasters” meme, you can simply call “bullshit” and point to the IPCC SREX report.

    • 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 article took a “maybe” conclusion of the IPCC, cherry picked data to support the conclusion they already had and then presented it. The fact of the matter is that there is no conclusion being accepted yet – and almost every scientist willing to forward a thought on the matter has taken the same tact as IPCC, that the data isn’t conclusive yet.

      Once again, this is misdirection. The only saving grace for you is that it isn’t you making the claims.. you simply forward someone else’s claims to speak for you.

  • 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 who should have to prove that it is harmful, but the proponents who should have to prove that it is benign. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, proponents have made no serious argument on this front.

    Second, you suggest that opponents must show that export of Otter Creek coal must show that emissions from the coal mined will make an “appreciable impact on climate change.” This suggestion is not only vague (what’s “appreciable”? how many millions or billions of tons of carbon are required?), but it misunderstands the nature of the unfolding disaster that is climate change. As the US Council on Environmental Quality recently stated (http://ceq.hss.doe.gov/nepa/regs/Consideration_of_Effects_of_GHG_Draft_NEPA_Guidance_FINAL_02182010.pdf): “Because climate change is a global problem that results from global GHG emissions, there are
    more sources and actions emitting GHGs (in terms of both absolute numbers and types) than are typically encountered when evaluating the emissions of other pollutants. From a quantitative perspective, there are no dominating sources and fewer sources that would even be close to dominating total GHG emissions. The global climate change problem is much more the result of numerous and varied sources, each of which might seem to make a relatively small addition to global atmospheric GHG concentrations.”

    So, basically, there is no single predominant source of GHG pollution. To the degree that you would require an opponent of coal exports or Otter Creek to show that the resultant emissions are a dominant global source, you set an impossible standard. But to be fair, you might just be seeking to require opponents to show that coal exports/Otter Creek would be a big source (in comparison to other sources). If that is the case, then I think it is a reasonable demand; however, such a standard would be easily met. Otter Creek (with a billion tons of coal) and construction of some of the largest coal ports in the world seem plainly to be big enough to receive priority attention.

    You also request opponents to present some solid evidence that increased coal exports from the US will actually lead to decreased coal consumption and avoided GHG emissions. This is a reasonable request. Fortunately, hard evidence is available. See http://www.sightline.org/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2012/02/Coal-Power-White-Paper.pdf. This is an economic analysis that concludes that additional coal exports will lead to additional coal consumption in Asia (greater supply leads to lower prices, which leads in turn to greater consumption). The analysis also concludes that fewer exports will lead to higher prices, encouraging Asian countries to tap large efficiency resources.

    Finally, a note about your humanitarian concerns. While I appreciate your raising the issue, I think your concerns are misdirected. Climate change–which is already affecting the global poor–may be the greatest humanitarian disaster of our time. Don’t take my word for it. Take the word of the Red Cross. http://www.redcross.int/EN/mag/magazine2007_1/4-9.html. This realization leads, in my opinion, to one of the most pointed arguments against coal exports–that it is morally wrong. It is well settled in the world of criminal law that knowingly doing something that harms another is culpable and a sufficient basis for condemnation (i.e., criminal charges). It is the same for willful blindness–engaging in conduct that will harm others, but intentionally refusing to recognize the clear risk of harm. If one accepts (as I believe is justified) that climate change is causing and promises to continue to cause significant harm to the global poor (such as the 150,000 deaths attributed to climate change annually that the Red Cross notes), then overt complicity in conduct (strip mining Otter Creek and shipping the coal to Asia) that contributes to this harm is morally wrong. And it doesn’t matter if someone else will do it if we don’t (could such reasoning ever justify morally wrongful conduct?).

    (There is, I agree, the valid rebuttal that everyone in the US who uses energy is somewhat complicit. The correct response, I believe, is that it is incumbent on us as Americans to work to be part of the solution, rather than working to aggravate the problem.)

    Again, PW, thank you for raising this issue. I hope these comments are helpful.

    • 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.

    • 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 emissions by forcing the continued use of dirtier fuels as per the status quo. This is obviously not the case, legally or in public discourse, which suggests that your claims regarding global climate impacts do not yet have the same acceptance as more direct cases of environmental damage.

      As to the magnitude of Otter Creek, a billion tons of coal is only one one-thousandth of recoverable coal reserves in the world. The potential effect on China’s coal market is similarly small – domestic production of coal in China is currently double the entire reserves in question. When put beside China’s substantial imports from Indonesia and Australia, it’s difficult to argue that any potential impact via decreased coal prices and increased coal consumption will be significant. I’ll revisit that fact later.

      The analysis, on the other hand, is very thorough. It is possible that increased coal availability in China will lead to decreased prices and increased consumption of coal. However, in the market as a whole we are talking about a small overall disruption, and the potential to displace less-efficient (in terms of BTUs per ton, carbon emissions, and health effects) local coal resources makes the impact on price difficult to gauge, and I note that the white paper in question does not (correct me if I missed something) make any attempt to gauge what the overall impact would be – merely to warn that we shouldn’t ignore its perceived small size.

      The paper attempts to argue that this could affect the perception of coal price stability and the associated planning for up to fifty years in the future. In fifty years, China’s domestic coal production will, if it remains relatively steady, will exhaust China’s coal reserves of over 100 billion tons of coal. If that is the case, and all the coal in Otter Creek is burned in China over that period, then the development in question will be perhaps one percent of the total coal burned in China during that period (for the moment ignoring the larger exporters to China, Australia and Indonesia). Again, the price effects of one percent of all the coal burned in China, and the impact thereof on Chinese fuel choices, are minimal.

      But the more optimistic scenario is that China does not burn all of their coal resources. Assuming this is the case, and our coal is cheaper and/or better quality, they will leave a billion tons in the ground and burn our coal instead. Now, this will have little impact on global warming. But it will have a huge humanitarian impact in China. 35 Chinese miners lose their lives for every 100 million tons of Chinese coal. So otter creek could save 350-500 lives. On a much bigger scale, 655,000 people a year die prematurely in China due to air pollution. Now, I don’t know how many of those deaths are attributable to China’s reliance on burning relatively high-impurity coal, but even if it were just one percent (and it is almost certainly more), the impact of providing China with lower-sulfur coal would be on the level of thousands of lives saved, and a far greater number of crippling diseases prevented. Since the Otter Creek project would have demonstrably little impact on global warming and the associated deaths, overall the humanitarian picture leans heavily towards exploitation and exportation of those reserves (that, however, is admittedly beyond the scope of both the law and the argument put forth by environmental groups. Though it is interesting that the environmental impact of every project is required to be evaluated, but the same is not true for the humanitarian impact).

      • 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 of the United States, http://www.eia.gov/coal/annual/, the number does not seem so insignificant. Additionally, the “one percent” argument that you make (Otter Creek will constitute one percent of China’s coal consumption over the next 50 years) is pernicious in the context of climate change because due to the magnitude and dispersed nature of global GHG emissions, any source (power plant or coal mine) no matter how large, can be discounted as merely “one percent” or a tiny fraction of global emissions. This means of discounting individual sources means that the social goal of mitigating climate change cannot be met (because no source is greater than one percent). This is the point I was trying to make by citing the draft CEQ guidance. For a more elegant statement of this argument see http://www.columbialawreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/111-7_Stack_Vandenbergh.pdf (at pages 1387 and 1388). Finally, regarding total global emissions and US coal exports to China, it is worth noting that Montana and Wyoming have greater coal reserves than all of China. http://www.eia.gov/coal/annual/pdf/table15.pdf and http://www.iea.org/Textbase/nppdf/free/2009/Coal_china2009_annexes.pdf. If multiple huge coal export facilities are constructed in the Pacific Northwest, I think it is safe to assume that the coal companies will be looking to ship a lot more coal to Asia than the one billion tons in Otter Creek.

        Second, I don’t think it is a sound argument to say that shipping US coal to Asia will achieve humanitarian ends. I agree with you, and I don’t think it is disputable, that the life cycle of coal use in China (from mining to combustion) is exceedingly harmful to the life and health of people in China (it also impacts all downwind nations, including the US). However, if we are truly concerned about this, the solution is not to ship low-sulfur sub-bituminous coal coal from the Powder River Basin to China. Such coal does not cause many deaths in extraction (though it does cause significant environmental damage) and it may have marginally less sulfur than some Chinese coal (I have not seen any clear credible comparison between US and Chinese coal–would love it if you could point one out), but when it is burned, it will still release a host of other bad stuff that causes major health problems–mercury, nitrogen oxides, carbon, particulate matter. (For an analysis of the impacts of coal pollution in the US–including tens of thousands of deaths annually–see http://www.catf.us/resources/publications/view/138.) If the concern is with air pollution in China and the health of coal miners, then rather than advancing what could not seriously be considered even a half solution (maybe a 1/100th), we should encourage large scale clean energy development in China (wind turbines don’t cause much air pollution at all). Ultimately, the humanitarian argument for shipping coal to Asia has always seemed to me like a somewhat cynical make-weight argument that coal proponents advance.

        That said, I appreciate your willingness to raise and seriously discuss this issue. It is complex and there is room for differing opinions. My personal view is that the negative impacts of expanded coal mining and coal exports dramatically outweigh the benefits. That said, there are people in Montana who work in this industry and they cannot be discounted. My position on that is that the state should both make a serious investment in retraining these workers and shifting them to work in the clean energy sector, and provide funding for transitioning communities that have been dependent on coal mining in the past (but that is a whole other conversation.)

        • “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 to do whether the availability of this particular coal will have a real effect on the China’s fuel choices. Since those choices are made on a long time frame, if the coal we’re discussing is not going to be a substantial part of China’s fuel mix on an extended time frame, its effect on the economic decisions will be insignificant, and the same amount of coal will be burned, regardless of the source. As to the construction of coal ports to ship coal from here to China – that’s another story, and one I haven’t looked into enough to judge properly.

          As to sulfur – the low sulfur content of coal in this area is precisely why it is so sought after. (Otter Creek Coal is less valuable than some others because it has higher sodium content, which makes it more difficult to use).

          http://watchlist.vermontlaw.edu/powder-river-basin-coal-leasing/

          Or else your own white paper will verify that fact. So unless the Otter Creek coal in question substantially increases Chinese coal consumption (which, as I pointed out, it won’t), its exportation will be far better for overall Chinese health than otherwise. As to Chinese development of renewable resources – they’ll have to do that themselves. Currently they have more capital to invest and a government structure more capable of doing so than our own.

          Obviously with economics, nothing is for sure. But I don’t think the evidence supports the conclusion that the coal in Otter Creek will, by its exportation, increase the total coal consumption of that country or their CO2 exports. It is possible that the net result of Western US coal extraction will have a real impact on coal consumption in China. Will our refraining from extracting our own coal have any impact on weather those terminals are built and the far greater resources of Wyoming extracted. On principle, I can understand keeping our portion of the coal in the ground. I’m just not sure it is likely enough to have an impact on the global climate to use that as a reason to not to extract the coal.

  • 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.

  • 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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