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Eric de Place and Clark Williams-Derry's Posts

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Bad news, coal industry: Proposed export terminal is in for a tough review

You shall not pass.
Scott Granneman

Editor's note: The coal industry is desperate to ship its product to Asia because demand here in the U.S. has dropped. Three coal export terminals are currently proposed for Washington and Oregon (down from six a year ago). Before they can be built, their environmental impacts must be evaluated. Climate activists have been calling for broad evaluations of the myriad impacts, while industry wants just narrow studies done. Today comes word that the environmental impact study for one of the proposed terminals will be wide-ranging and rigorous -- a win for anti-coal activists. 

Hot off the presses: The three “co-lead” agencies in charge of reviewing the proposed Gateway Pacific coal export terminal at Cherry Point, Wash., have published the scope of their review. The major takeaway is that it’s bad news for the coal industry.

The industry did win an empty victory with the Army Corps of Engineers, the sole federal agency at the table, which opted for a narrow scope of review. But in the end it doesn't much matter. One of the other lead agencies, the Washington Department of Ecology, is going to require in-depth analysis of four elements that the coal industry had desperately hoped to avoid:

  • A detailed assessment of rail transportation's impacts on representative communities in Washington and a general analysis of out-of-state rail impacts.
  • An assessment of how the project would affect human health in Washington.
  • A general assessment of cargo-ship impacts beyond Washington waters.
  • An evaluation and disclosure of greenhouse gas emissions of end-use coal combustion.

Of those, two stand to be particularly damaging for would-be coal exporters: rail impacts and greenhouse gas emissions. There’s not a lot of wiggle room with either of those elements.

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What it’s really like to have a coal terminal in your backyard

Ridley Coal Terminal.
astairin, cc
Ridley Coal Terminal.

This is required reading -- and viewing -- for anyone worried about how export terminals handle coal in reality: a jaw-dropping exposé on the pollution from Ridley Terminals at Prince Rupert, British Columbia. You absolutely must click through and see the photos collected by The Northern View newspaper in its excellent investigation of Ridley.

Here are a few of the alarming findings from the paper’s investigation into coal handling at the facility:

“There’s a certain amount of coal that sticks to the belts, and as it makes its run underneath the belt back it falls off … There’s coal just falling everywhere … Everywhere there’s a corner it just builds and falls off and jams belts, and then it falls into the ocean,” a reliable source, who has authorized access to the site, told The Northern View.

And:

Witnesses claim the dock’s containment system is laughable, consisting of pieces of wood and tarps that allow coal to either slip through the dock’s metal floor grating or through the open spaces along the rail of the dock.

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Why is the U.S. government so bullish on coal predictions?

U.S. energy policies prop up coal consumption in a variety of ways, some clear and some less so. For example, the Bureau of Land Management has lately come in for a drubbing for leasing public lands to coal mining companies at comically low rates, and to the detriment of taxpayers.

Official bullishness on coal extends to other government agencies too, such as the Department of Energy, which produces the nation’s energy forecasts. If you sift through the new coal projections in the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Annual Energy Outlook 2012, you’ll find something rather curious: The U.S. government has a more favorable outlook for coal than virtually any other major forecasting institution.

Take a look at U.S. projections for coal exports, and you’ll see that they are more aggressive than any other major forecast*:

Read more: Climate & Energy

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The carbon consequences of Northwest coal exports

A version of this article originally appeared on Sightline Daily.

There are at present six proposals to export coal from Northwest ports. If all of these proposals are built, and if all of them operate at full capacity, the Northwest would be shipping 145 million tons of per coal year.

When burned, that coal will produce roughly 262 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. It’s such a staggering figure that it’s a little hard to grasp. So here’s some context:


The coal export proposals are, in other words, a disaster for the climate. In aggregate, they are actually far worse than the Keystone XL pipeline.

Read more: Coal

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Picturing international coal trends

Cross-posted from Sightline Daily. In the course of looking into some larger questions about the global coal trade, I stumbled upon several fascinating pictures of world coal production and consumption during the last three decades. Here’s what global coal “production” (i.e. mining) looked like in 2010: I wasn’t able to embed the animated image, but you can watch 30 years of coal production play out here. Now here’s a closer look at trends within Asia, the world’s dominant coal producer: Watch the animated version here. That’s the production side. The other side of the coin, of course, is coal consumption. So, let’s …

Read more: Coal

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Why railroads care about coal exports

Cross-posted from Sightline Daily. Here are three pictures that help explain why American railways seem to be supporting coal export proposals in the Northwest. It's because railways are very closely connected to the coal industry. Consider: Coal so dwarfs every other rail-hauled commodity that it is almost as important as all the other commodities combined. (Note: This picture excludes "intermodal" freight.) But while coal is a huge component of rail freight, it declined noticeably in 2009 and 2010: Presumably, a good deal of the recent decline is related to a lousy economy and the attendant reduction in demand for electrical power and industrial uses of coal. …

Read more: Climate & Energy, Coal

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Coal exports are a bigger threat than the tar-sands pipeline

This post originally appeared on Sightline Daily.

The planned Keystone XL oil pipeline has earned major national attention for the damage it would do to the climate. At the same time, another climate drama is playing out with much less attention as coal companies make plans to export huge quantities to Asia by way of Pacific Northwest ports. It's pretty clear that both projects are environmental horror stories, but I've been wondering: Which one is worse?

So, from the King Kong versus Godzilla files, here's my analysis of their carbon impacts.

Chart.

The result surprised me: Coal exports look to be an even bigger climate disaster than the pipeline. There are, in fact, quite a bit more direct emissions from burning the coal than from the oil. That's true even when one counts the energy-intensive tar-sands extraction and processing -- and, of course, there are plenty of upstream emissions associated with coal mining that I've left out of the equation here. (In order to make a roughly direct comparison, I also omitted emissions associated with both products' mining, refining, transportation, and so forth.) Clearly we can ill afford either one of these projects, but until we have a clear energy policy that respects climate science we'll be wrestling with these kind of killer projects one at a time.

Now, for all the energy and math geeks out there, here's the methodology I used to generate these numbers.

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More coal in the U.S. means more pollution for China

A young coal worker in Linfen, Shanxi, China.Photo: Andi808 Cross-posted from Sightline Daily. One of the nation's most respected resource economists, Dr. Thomas M. Power, just released a new white paper [PDF] showing that coal exports to China will increase that country's coal burning and pollution, and decrease investments in energy efficiency. In a nutshell, Power demonstrates that the planned coal export facilities in the Northwest would add to the supply of coal to China, thereby pushing down the cost of burning it. And because China is highly cost sensitive, even relatively small changes in price could result in significant changes …

Read more: Climate & Energy, Coal

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Race, class, and the demographics of cycling

This post original appeared on Sightline's Daily Score blog. If you're reading this, then the phrase "interesting demographic data" probably doesn't sound like an oxymoron to you. That's a good thing, because you'll find a heap of it in a new analytical report out on bicycling. Among other things, we get a clearer view of the race and income components of U.S. bicycling. Here's a look at bike trips broken out by racial and ethnic categories: Two big things stand out here for me: 1) white people remain somewhat overrepresented; but 2) bicycling appears to be trending toward racial parity. …

Read more: Biking, Cities

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Regional cap-and-trade saves jobs and money

This post originally appeared at Sightline's Daily Score blog. I'm not big on parroting press releases, but I'm going to make an exception for Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the Northeast's carbon cap-and-trade program. RGGI is quietly demonstrating that carbon markets can work wonderfully. So it's too bad no one seems to be paying attention any longer. Last week, RGGI's most recent auction netted $83 million, for a lifetime total of nearly $861 million. The vast majority of that money is channeled into energy efficiency and job creation with immediate and tangible results. For example: Maine is investing a portion of its …