Recently I contributed to a kickstarter campaign underway right now to create a documentary film called Things of Intrinsic Worth about coal export and its intersection with the lives of a western ranching family. It is incredibly important that we find as many ways as possible to grow the awareness about how serious an issue coal export is for western land management and for climate change. This documentary promises to address these issues in what looks like a very comprehensive and thoughtful way, by looking at coal export development through the lens of a personal story of a multi-generational ranching family whose livelihood is threatened by the expansion of coal mining in Montana.
I’ve written a lot about coal export (see Actions 5,23,27,and 46) because it is a critical component of our country’s response to climate change. As much as we put domestic efforts into phasing out high-carbon-emitting coal plants and transitioning to cleaner energy sources, we can seriously undermine these efforts by continuing to support and expand the efforts actively underway to mine coals and export it to other countries for their use. Of concern to me was that in Obama’s recent climate change speech (see Action 71), while he specifically described our need to end subsidies for overseas coal plant development, he did not speak specifically to the role we are playing in supporting overseas coal energy by exporting these resources to countries like China.
And there is reason to worry about this: US coal exports have risen dramatically in recent years in response to global demand. The US is the fourth largest exporter of coal in the world, behind Australia, Indonesia and Russia. According to SourceWatch, while
US domestic demand for coal will probably decrease from the current 44 percent of US electrical production to as low as 22 percent within the next 20 years, according to some analysts [and] emand in the U.S. is dropping primarily due to new natural gas reserve discoveries and Clean Air Act regulations…. In contrast, demand for coal is rapidly rising in Asia. U.S. coal exports to China surged from 2009 to 2010, jumping from 387,000 tons (January-September) to over 4 million tons the following year. Demand for US coking and steam coal also grew rapidly in Japan, India, and South Korea. Industry forecasters anticipate a “30-year super cycle in global coal markets.” U.S. companies hope to cash in on the market and dramatically increase coal exports, especially from the Powder River Basin (PRB) of Wyoming and Montana through ports on the US west coast. U.S. coal exports rose 49 percent during the first quarter of 2011 compared to the previous quarter, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration”
This is bad news for global greenhouse gas emissions. We cannot claim that we are making strides in battling climate change with local improvements in efficiency and transitioning to clean energy if we are simultaneously digging our carbon storage out of the ground to be emitted by foreign countries at a breakneck pace. The atmosphere does not care where we burn coal. It is worth repeating here the simple math that Bill McKibben and 350.org have given us on this topic:
We can emit 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxideand stay below 2°C of warming… Burning the fossil fuel that corporations now have in their reserves would result in emitting 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide – five times the safe amount.
And that’s the key: carbon sources that are five times greater than the amount we should be seriously considering limiting our emissions to for the safety of our and our planet’s future are already within the grasp of companies who will, lacking the regulatory or political response to prevent these emissions, develop these resources. It is absolutely critical that we understand the global nature of this problem, and stop pretending that we can say we are on a coal diet while on the other hand we shovel it out for consumption by our neighbors as fast as possible.
Coal mining also has the potential for serious land and water impacts. As the world coal association notes itself rather understatedly, “Coal mining, particularly surface mining, requires large areas of land to be temporarily disturbed.” Mountaintop mining in the Appalachians is some of the most visually striking and ecologically devastating of these practices, but throughout the country, coal mining often means extensive surface land removal and pit development, leaving gaping holes and massive areas of surface disturbance as its legacy. In the case of the McRae family that is the subject of this documentary, the coal railway that is planned move the mined coal out of the Powder River Basin would bisect the ranch, cutting their cattle off from water and bringing noise and dust pollution to their property (it is worth noting that one of the coal developers, the candy billionaire Forest Mars Jr, joined the ownership to prevent the railroad from cutting through his own ranch in the area).
There are some fantastic organizations out there that are keeping a close eye on coal exports and sounding the alarm, including EcoWatch and our local, truly excellent organization Sightline, which reports on sustainability issues in the Pacific Northwest and has covered coal export and coal train impacts extensively. EcoWatch has produced an excellent short film on coal development in the Powder River Basin.
But there is more to do, both on the activism front, and to support this movement, a real need to raise public awareness about the impacts of what may seem like domestic resource extraction issues but are truly a global concern. We are early in the development of many of the railways, ports, and mining areas that are being proposed for coal export, proposals that will take an incredible amount of capital that we should be spending to move our country, and other countries, towards a clean fuel economy. Now is a critical time to make sure we understand the scope of what is being proposed and to have the chance to change our path, before we make some very troubling commitments to exporting an enormous amount of carbon. Please join me in the support of Things of Intrinsic Worth and other efforts underway to raise our collective awareness about this issue.
A Quick Update: Thanks to Huffington Post for today’s article that describes criticism of our country’s lack of meaningful movement on coal exports, which begins: “Environmental experts who remain unimpressed with President Barack Obama’s war-on-carbon rhetoric point to one key reason for concern that’s off most Americans’ radar: U.S. coal exports.” An excellent articulation of why we need to get this issue on the radar!