Outside Alaska, there’s only one coal-export terminal on the West Coast, in Delta, B.C. There are plans afoot to build another, in Bellingham, Wash., and local activists are fighting it.

There are plenty of local reasons not to want a coal-export terminal in your state — read this brief from the Center for American Progress for more on that — but I want to focus on the climate-related argument.

In this fight and others like it, one often hears a certain sort of fatalism about fossil fuels. Demand is rising inexorably because of growth in the developing world, which means, we’re told, that all of the available fossil fuels will eventually be consumed. Blocking any one local refinery, power plant, or shipping port is pointless — it doesn’t prevent production or consumption, it just shifts them around the global market. (Fossil fuels are “fungible.”) This explains the enduring appeal of a carbon tax: it acts everywhere at once and avoids that kind of internal leakage.

One can accept the need for a carbon tax without buying the underlying premise, though. Market fundies aside, the world is not flat and fossil fuels are not completely fungible. The world is quite lumpy! Differences in geography, technology, politics, and timing matter in international markets. More to the point, blocking the Washington coal-export port could have lasting, substantial effects on markets and emissions.

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That’s the conclusion of a new analysis — “Coal from the West Coast” [PDF] — by economist Thomas M. Power. Here’s how he summarizes it:

Proponents of the coal export terminals consistently claim that the decision to authorize them will have no effect on the total amount of coal that is burned globally, and hence on the global climate. In their view, opening up the West Coast to the export of Powder River Basin coal will only change the source of the coal burned in Asia—not the total amount. This white paper explains why these arguments are incorrect, and inconsistent with both the basic principles of economics as well as the abundant literature regarding energy use and consumption patterns in Asia.

This paper concludes that the proposed coal export facilities in the Northwest will result in more coal consumption in Asia and undermine China’s progress towards more efficient power generation and usage. Decisions the Northwest makes now will impact Chinese energy habits for the next half-century; the lower coal prices afforded by Northwest coal exports encourage burning coal and discourage the investments in energy efficiency that China has already undertaken.

For Washington, this coal terminal would be an even clearer and more dismal signal than the giant car-focused tunnel beneath Seattle that state leaders’ high-flown rhetoric about fighting climate change is worthless.

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Fossil fuels are not entirely fungible, and state and local fights do matter. They are not merely symbolic; they really can disrupt markets and encourage investment in alternatives.

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