Last month, President Bush signed into law an energy bill most remarkable for its timidity with regard to climate change. According to sometime Gristmill contributor Peter Montague of Rachel’s Democracy & Health News, the 2007 Energy Act will reduce U.S. carbon emissions by just 4.7 percent by 2030 — clearly not nearly enough to avoid risking dire climate change. (Montague leans on this study (PDF) for his calculation.)

Given that we’re quietly moving our most carbon-intensive industries to China, even that mind-numbingly modest reduction will surely prove a fraud.

Consider the chemicals industry. As The Wall Street Journal put it on New Year’s Eve, “For years China has been a magnet for the chemicals industry, attracting European and American companies with its cheap production costs and growing market.”

Of course, by “cheap production costs” the Journal isn’t just referring to the labor of China’s vast population. It also means its lax environmental code — and ready stash of coal. Here we go:

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Now China has another attraction for the energy-intense chemical industry: vast supplies of coal that can replace oil and natural gas as raw materials for chemical production.

Let’s get this straight. U.S. (and European) companies are reducing their domestic consumption of oil and natural gas, saving money and lowering domestic carbon emissions — by switching to an even more carbon-intensive fuel, coal, in China.

The Journal article is immensely depressing — and absolutely essential reading. Here’s an honor roll of U.S. companies getting into the act:

Celanese Corp. opened a plant this year that uses coal-based feedstock to make a chemical used in paints and food sweeteners. Dow Chemical Co. has partnered with Chinese energy company Shenhua Group Corp. to study a project to convert coal into plastics. Mining company Anglo American PLC is also looking at a coal-to-chemicals project. Suppliers to the chemical industry, such as Praxair Inc., are vying to open accounts with the new coal-to-chemical plants.

And here’s the de rigueur euphoric quote from a U.S. participant in the unhappy trend: “Coal to chemicals is an opportunity that’s literally exploding [in China] right now,” declared the CEO of a U.S. company “that builds coal-gasification plants.” Hooray!

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I like the methodical way the Journal writers unpack the climate implications of the trend. “North America has its own huge reserves of coal, sparking interest in gasification plants in that continent as well,” they write. “But development has been slowed by concerns that the projects would contribute to growing emissions of the gases that cause global warming.”

Clearly, the solution to this dilemma is simply to move those plants to China.

So, in the face of mounting evidence of human-caused climate change, we get a weak energy bill and a strong move to offshore the dirtiest industries. How to explain this seemingly insane response?

Peter Montague offers a sinister explanation:

The U.S. seems to be painting itself into a corner, creating a global warming emergency, which may then be used to convince us to accept the only “solution” favored by the coal, oil, mining, railroad, and automobile industries: burying carbon dioxide a mile below ground, hoping it will stay there forever.

When I read something that sounds like a conspiracy theory, I reach for my Occam’s Razor, and usually slice it to shreds. Yet Montague’s explanation seems sturdy. Can anyone think of a better one?