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Powder River Basin Coal


I agree with Zoe Carpenter here. If President Obama is serious about fighting climate change through clamping down on coal, he has to deal with the coal industry’s plans to export Powder River Basin coal to Asia through west coast ports. If the United States is to become more of a leader on climate change by reducing coal, it can’t just be through how we consume coal in power plants. It also has to step in and severely reduce or eliminate exports of coal to other countries. Obama has been silent on this issue. Instead, citizens of Oregon and Washington have stepped in and said they didn’t want their ports used for these exports. They have defeated the industry three straight times in finding outlets for that coal, but the industry is incredibly powerful. Ultimately, the federal government has to step in here. However, like with the Keystone XL Pipeline, I am skeptical Obama make the right decision.

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  • Theobald Smith

    And where do you propose that the 300 million Indians without access to electricity get their cheap power from?

    I don’t think the “right thing” is nearly as clear-cut as you suggest.

    • Wind, solar, etc.

      Destroying the ability of humans to live on the earth is always the right thing to do. Especially when western companies can make huge profits.

      • salacious

        Wind and solar can’t meet that kinda of increased baseline demand cost-effectively. At least not yet.

        • Massive US government investment would help.

          In any case, fighting climate change is by far the greatest fight we face in the world today. There is no acceptable reason to ship that coal.

          • Eric, those people are VERY poor.

            THE biggest climate change problem– far bigger than the problem of multinationals– is that we in the first world got the benefit of all that cheap dirty energy during our industrialization and the countries that developed later are being told they cannot. This, and not the opposition of the US right, is why every international climate change agreement is so hard to negotiate.

            This is of a piece with your position on unions and environmentalism. The trade-offs are real. I love renewable energy, but renewable energy is not going to allow India to industrialize and become a first world country as fast as cheap coal would. And the amount of money it would cost to make up the difference in cost to India is astronomical with their 1 billion population, even if we assumed the developed world was willing to pay it.

            You can’t keep believing that nobody ever has to trade off anything against the environment. Environmentalism is very much a rich person’s concern. It is ALSO a poor person’s concern in certain places where they will get the brunt of the effects (such as in Bangladeshi lowlands), but the people who will bear the costs of environmentalism are not all wealthy oil barons or sheikhs. Many of them are going to be all the people who need the dirty industries for their jobs to survive and their economies to prosper. You can’t wave your hand at that trade-off– it is totally real and difficult to solve.

            • joe from Lowell

              Let me just add that this is not merely an ethical point, but a practical one.

              The failure to come up with an answer to this dilemma won’t mean that climate change is avoided and poor Indians suffer. It will mean that China and India will give the west the middle finger, and climate change won’t get solved.

              • Linnaeus

                Then we are, more or less, left with a modernization theory-esque situation: gotta go through the dirty phase first, then go back and clean it up and hope we haven’t gone too far in the meantime.

              • Gregor Sansa

                If you could wave a magic wand and make all the coal in the world disappear (say, over a 10 year period, to give time to adjust), India and China and Nigeria would still figure out how to industrialize. In fact, it would probably be good for that process on balance, because rebuilding all those old coal plants in the west would stimulate the global economy enough to improve the market for third-world exports. And it would certainly improve the life of a newborn Indian or Nigerian of today, because climate change is gonna really suck for those people.

                I’m not pretending that the dilemma you speak of doesn’t exist. If India unilaterally banned coal, then China and Pakistan and Indonesia would happily use their (nominally) cheaper electricity to take advantage. So in that sense, yes, a first-world environmentalist saying “just don’t use it” is giving advice that’s against the short-term, individual interests of poor people. But this is a problem that real international coordination, and merely-hundreds-of-billions-not-tens-of-trillions of dollars, could actually fix. So we’re screwed, but not because there is no solution to this, but merely because we don’t have the collective maturity to embrace that solution.

        • Jordan

          And this means coal is the answer.

          Wait, no, no it doesn’t.

          • Theobald Smith

            Rural electrification increases health outcomes, it increases educational outcomes, it improves every human wellness metric. Coal is cheap electricity using proven technologies; massive government investment into wind and solar just isn’t coming from the American government.

            What you’re saying is that rural Indians shouldn’t have electricity until the planet is saved. Is this really what you’re implying, and if so, how is it any different than the standard Republican IGM,FY?

            • Jordan

              Electricity is, indeed, a good thing. But coal is only cheap because producers and consumers don’t pay for the externalities.

              I agree that there is often a tinge of environmental racism that goes along with campaigns to restrict production or distribution of fossil fuels in western countries. But climate change will hurt Indians much more than it will Westerners.

              The rest of what you say is just bullshit. So go fuck yourself.

              • Decrease Mather

                Westerners aren’t exactly going cold turkey on fossil fuels. I suspect the Indians will ask why Jordan gets to drive his car and fly on airplanes while they can’t have the basics.

                • Jordan

                  Well, once I get my coal-powered car one of these days, that will indeed be a relevant point.

          • Salacious

            Did I say that? I didn’t think so. But when evaluating the alternatives, let’s traffic in reality, not wishful thinking.

            • Jordan

              No, you talked about “cost efficiency” without factoring in the externalities of coal. So, yeah, lets traffic in reality. That would be good.

              • Anonymous

                No, I didn’t do that either. All I said was that wind and solar can’t meet baseline demand cost effectively yet. *. That implies nothing about the externalities of coal. Read what people say before you launch into high dudgeon.

                * Hopefully this will change as the tech improves, although I suspect solar might be a hard sell in a high population density, high corruption country like India. Also, does anyone know whether subcontinental weather patterns lead to constant cloud cover?

                • Jordan

                  If your comment had been on a thread about natural gas, or nuclear power, or hydroelectric power, or geothermal power, or whatever, then sure. But it wasn’t. It was on a thread about coal.

                  “Cost-effectiveness” only makes sense in comparison to other sources of energy. So specify those alternatives – again, this was in a thread about coal – or go home.

                  That said, and being maximally charitable to you, it is true that wind and solar by themselves are insufficient. Presumably, this is covered by the “etc” in the comment you were originally responding to.

                • demz taters

                  And they never will absent some economic and political pressure to spur innovation in large-scale alternative energy infrastructures. I’m continually amazed at how blind our capitalist class seems to be to the amazing opportunities that a robust alternative energy policy would create.

                • joe from Lowell

                  Actually, our “capitalist class” is investing great guns in wind and solar. The US just went over 10 gigawatts of installed solar capacity, joining only China, Germany, and Italy, and the vast majority of that capacity has been installed by private investors and property owners.

                • Gregor Sansa

                  it is true that wind and solar by themselves are insufficient.

                  I presume you’re talking about the intermittency/storage issue. And this is true for wind and for solar PV. But not so for solar baseline (ie, a bunch of mirrors pointing at a tower), which can easily store energy in melted salt and the use that to generate electricity at night.

                  Yes, the right answer will never be simple. But that doesn’t mean you can’t simply say “you’re wrong”.

                • Jordan

                  Yes, the right answer will never be simple. But that doesn’t mean you can’t simply say “you’re wrong”

                  Well, I *did* say I was being maximally charitable to them ;).

                  A little more seriously. I still have my doubts that wind+solar alone will be sufficient, at least in the medium term. It will take a long time to replace a lot of the really dirty power sources, etc. That is more what I meant, rather than the storage issue.

        • joe from Lowell

          Wind and solar can’t meet that kinda of increased baseline demand cost-effectively. At least not yet.

          That’s changing rapidly. Between the fourth quarter of 2011 and the fourth quarter of 2012, the price of solar panels dropped 41%. The solar industry is getting to be like the computer industry in terms of how rapid the technology advances.

          • Gregor Sansa

            Sorry, solar will never pass 100% efficient, so there will never be decades of exponential price reductions. Yes, solar is improving rapidly, but nothing (including the computer industry) will ever match the last half-century of the computer industry.

            • joe from Lowell

              I don’t recall saying anything about decades of exponential price reductions. I’m sure there will be a leveling off at some point.

              But we don’t really need it to, do we? We just need it to achieve parity with fossil fuels, and that’s not decades away.

              • Gregor Sansa

                Parity already got here in something like 2010, if you count first-order externalities; and probably almost decade before that, if you count all externalities.

                But you’re right, we’ll soon be to the point where coal is unsustainable without subsidies or pre-installed capacity, and in just a decade or two that “or” will be an “and”.

    • ajay

      Those 300 million Indians aren’t going to be in great shape when climate change means they’re either drowning or starving to death.

    • Green Caboose

      And where do you propose that the 300 million Indians without access to electricity get their cheap power from?

      You’re so cute. It’s like it’s 2003 all over again and you’re claiming that the brutal invasion and occupation of Iraq is all about liberating the poor Iraqis.

      Yep, those plans to ship all that coal overseas is all about altruistic helping of poor Indians. Yep.

      • PhoenixRising

        Why can’t the Indians who’ve graduated ITT use the abundant natural resources they have (solar, wind, tide) and one of a dozen proven technologies to convert those into electricity, with investment from their own wealthy citizens and government? Thus creating a global market in those technologies and electrifying India quietly and safely?

        Not all South Asians run hotels in Wichita, y’all.

        • Theobald Smith

          Because when compared to just burning coal, solar, wind and tidal are capital-intensive technologies to design and deploy, and India is by and large a capital-poor nation?

  • dollared

    Agree with Theobald here. If it’s not Powder River coal, it will be dirtier brown coal from China or Australia. Much better to let this coal go and fight coal emissions in the US. Better yet, establish a usefully large severance tax or leasing fee

    • How is this better? So ultimately it is better for the US to profit off destroying the earth than not? This seems highly dubious.

      • James E. Powell

        You may think it’s dubious, I might think it’s immoral, but the great mass of Americans believe it is exactly what we ought to be doing.

        Climate change and environmental problems generally, have been relegated to the category of things that elites talk about rather than do anything about. And the American public only sees them as identity markers. Look at that recent news item about how right-wingers react if the light bulbs are marked as good for the environment.

        We are well and truly screwed. Don’t expect any significant policy changes until after the catastrophe.

        • BigHank53

          After the catastrophe, it’s looking like there’s going to be precious little to make policy with. That’s okay, I guess: paleolithic societies don’t tend to need much of it.

          • Gregor Sansa

            That’s neo-paleolithic.

            But seriously: “catastrophe” is 15% of current cities becoming uninhabitable, food prices spiking and widespread famine, collapsing governments and resource wars, etc. There would still be a larger (in absolute numbers) and wealthier (in many ways) middle and upper class than in 1900. That is not complacency; I’m talking about the biggest disaster in relative terms to ever hit humanity, and bigger in absolute terms by an order of magnitude or more. It’s just saying that there is a really, really long way to fall between today’s world and the paleolithic.

            • BigHank53

              I’m not sure you understand quite how delicate modern civilization is. We have modern civilization due to mechanized agriculture. Where are those refineries located? Many of them are right on the coast. They’re too big to move and slow to build.

              Another choke point, for example, is piston rings. Diesel engines need ’em replaced on a periodic schedule. Millions of people are capable of replacing the things, but I’d be willing to bet that there’s fewer than five hundred people in the US that know how to make the damn things. Without a constant stream of the most mundane crap imaginable, things grind to a halt very quickly indeed, and we no longer have the support structure (local agriculture, energy, and transport) that existed in 1900.

              • Gregor Sansa

                Capitalism is very good at providing “a constant stream of the most mundane crap imaginable”. Not so good at preventing mass famine.

                I suspect you don’t realize how apocalyptic my “a billion or two die but industrial civilization survives” scenario is. But yes, I think the “we won’t have piston rings” idea is about as realistic as the “environmental regulations will KILL us” that lobbyists spout. In both cases, there’s a lot of hidden resiliency.

                • BigHank53

                  Piston rings are an example I pulled out of my ear. The point is this: our food supply depends on the diesel and the tractor and the fertilizer all being in the right place at the right time in order for the tortilla chips to show up. Now, the climate could go sideways in such a way as to eliminate the crop in question…or societal disruption could break the supply chain that provides the diesel, tractor, fertilizer, and transportation. Just because we’ve been lucky enough to avoid that kind of market failure here doesn’t make it impossible.

        • joe from Lowell

          Don’t expect any significant policy changes until after the catastrophe.

          There have already been significant policy changes; that’s why the coal plants are closing, the cars are leap-frogging efficiency standards, and US power demand is actually – in absolute terms, not just per capita – decreasing.

          • Gregor Sansa

            “significant” relative to the no-action baseline, sure. “Significant” relative to the scale of action needed to avert catastrophe… well, is ~5% significant?

            • joe from Lowell

              The trendline that brought us to 5% is significant, because it’s going to bring us to 10% and 20% in just a few years.

              The benefits of the alternative energy and anti-coal policies of the last few years are increasing exponentially, and will continue to increase. That they’re doing so from a very recent near-zero baseline does not make them any less significant.

              If you were 50′ underwater and sinking, and you suddenly stopped sinking and accelerated towards the surface, would you consider that insignificant?

              • Gregor Sansa

                Luckily, this isn’t a person drowning, because if it were, they would already be doomed. This is a continuum between “continued uninterrupted growth” and “extinction of humanity”, and we’re aimed pretty squarely below the “worst thing ever” line. So sure, the current improvements might save millions out of the billion or two who die, and a million lives is certainly “significant”, but it’s still peanuts compared to the problem.

                • joe from Lowell

                  Once again, looking at “the current improvements” is pointless, because the current improvements are just the beginning of a growing trend.

    • trollhattan

      It’s great that you bring up Australia because even though they’re the world’s biggest coal exporter, they’ve shown that renewables can provide base load power.


      Expanding our coal export infrastructure is as bad a strategy as developing LNG export ports. And BTW, if we do the latter all the fracking we do won’t drop domestic natural gas prices one bit because the world markets will keep prices high. Fungiblity, baby.

      • joe from Lowell

        Keep prices high? Keep? Gas prices are at rock-bottom and have been for years.

        And BTW, exporting natural gas replaces coal plants. Do you want to stop coal burning, or do you kinda want to stop coal burning as long as it’s easy?

        • DrS

          Natural gas prices are significantly higher in Europe and Asia than they are in the US.

          Having LNG ports means more options for domestic US producers. They can ship it overseas to fetch a higher price. Which will raise the price domestically.

          Come on, this is simple stuff.

          • joe from Lowell

            Come on, this is simple stuff.

            As is the definition of “keep.”

            Let’s walk through this slowly, Mr. This Is Simple Stuff: the sentence was “And BTW, if we do the latter all the fracking we do won’t drop domestic natural gas prices one bit because the world markets will keep prices high.

            This is a statement about American gas prices, and the inability of increased fracking to lower American gas prices. It’s a fine statement right up until the last part.

            American gas prices cannot be kept high, because they are not high. None of the information you felt the need to “explain” to me changes that reality.

  • dollared

    Er, and use the proceeds to have the US be the example of eliminating coal.

  • dollared

    It’s better because export bans will be 100% ineffective (or perhaps 120% ineffective because Australian coal is dirtier than US export coal. And at least if the US has some cash for alternate energy and, more importantly, to subsidize job losses in coal country, we might create se domestic and international support for GHG reduction.

    • There is no way that exporting coal is going to create support for greenhouse gas reduction. Absolutely no way. If the US sells this coal, none or nearly none of the proceeds will go to alternative energy.

    • Jordan

      Do you think that Australia won’t export their coal if the US exports theirs?

      • Gregor Sansa

        If the US puts an export tariff on theirs, then yes, I think it’s possible that Australia and China will too, eventually.

        And anyway: if even ONE country out of [US, Canada, Saudi Arabia, China, Australia] extracts all its fossil fuels, we’re probably past a tipping point. That doesn’t mean humanity goes extinct or stone age, but it does mean that the old “boot stomping on a face forever” dystopia starts to look utopic.

        • ajay

          if even ONE country out of [US, Canada, Saudi Arabia, China, Australia] extracts all its fossil fuels, we’re probably past a tipping point

          No country’s ever going to extract all its fossil fuels. Take the UK for example: it had massive coal reserves in 1800, which powered the industrial revolution (thus causing, indirectly, baguettes and Carly Simon) and it still has pretty big coal reserves, but almost all its coal mines are now shut because they aren’t economic. The UK imports most of its coal now.

          • Gregor Sansa

            “All” in these terms means “over half of current proven reserves”. Of course you can never get the last crumb.

        • Am I hallucinating what i remember from high school? I thought the US couldn’t impose export tariffs.

          • Gregor Sansa

            OK, just tax it domestically.

  • joe from Lowell

    However, like with the Keystone XL Pipeline, I am skeptical Obama make the right decision.

    Since you’ve already written two posts stating that the Keystone XL pipeline had been approved, and spent the comments chiding people who corrected you, I’m not going to bet my mortgage on your predictions.

    • rea

      The opposition to the Keystone Pipeline frustates me a bit. Most of the argument against the pipeline seems to be simply frustrated opposition to development of the oil sands. The Canadian oil sands are going to be developed, whether we like it or not. At some point, should we not shift from trying and failing to stop the development to trying to ensure that transportation of the product is handled in the safest and least damaging manner possible? Isn’t the pipeline prefereable, for example, to rail transportation?

      • joe from Lowell

        I think opposition it Keystone is perfectly legitimate, even if the cause has become overblown. Pipelines are cheaper and more efficient than rail transport, and allowing the project can only serve to speed up the development of the tar sands.

      • Gregor Sansa

        This is a war. Humanity versus the oil companies. Stopping the pipeline will not stop the tar sands development completely, but it will slow it down; and more importantly, it will deny the enemy its key resource, that is, money with which to create more committed oilmen and petrostates.

  • Aaron Baker

    Obama is nothing if not an exceptionally adroit politician, and I fear that things will have to get a lot worse before fossil fuels become politically toxic.

    • Green Caboose

      Either that or let Cheneyburtonexxontexacomobilechevron have full ownership rights of all solar and wind power everywhere. If that happened you’d magically see the Cheneyburtonexxontexacomobilechevron-owned media discover the incredible benefits of alternative fuels and the awful reality of climate change.

      • joe from Lowell

        The Kochs and Cheneyburton are getting squeezed from their own side now.

        The biggest wind power state? Texas.

        The worm is turning.

  • PSP

    Reality check. Thanks to deindustrialization, the US is going back to being a resource extraction economy. We have a negative balance of payments, so we need exports. Lots of jobs involved too, more in transportation and support services than the actual mining.

    As long as coal is going to be burned anyway, of course we are going to try to be the ones who get the money. It is also why I give Keystone at least 10:1 odds of happening.

    • Gregor Sansa

      I’ll take that bet. $50 against $500, to be donated to the environmental charity of your choice, over and above my/your previous years’ total charitable donation levels. If you’re serious, how can I contact you?

      • Gregor Sansa

        To be clear, I wouldn’t take the bet at 1:1, but I’d set the odds at around 3:2 against denial, and 10:1 looks like a great bet to me.

  • Bruce Vail

    I don’t think the President has the power to ban coal exports, absent some major legislative change.

    US has been exporting large amounts of coal for years, and I am not aware that there has ever been any successful challenge to the right of mine owners to export freely.

  • bobh

    “…However, like with the Keystone XL Pipeline, I am skeptical Obama will make the right decision….”

    Here’s a clue why: in the picture in Zoe Carpenter’s article, that BNSF train and those cars full of coal heading north out of Seattle are owned by Warren Buffet, one of Obama’s bosses.

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