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.