Environmentalists have helped scuttle more than 50 coal-fired power plants in the U.S. in the past year.

That’s fantastic. But the movement to stop coal won’t help the climate unless it can globalize; for the climate, coal burned in China traps just as much warmth as coal burned in Texas.

Nor will stopping more U.S. coal-fired power plants help save communities in the mining zones of Appalachia from environmental and economic devastation. That’s because U.S. coal companies are merrily exporting excess coal abroad.

Check out this New York Times graphic: U.S. coal exports are up from under 40 million tons in 2002 to nearly 60 million tons last year.

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And that means a windfall for the mega coal producers. As with other commodities, coal prices have risen sharply. The above-linked Times chart shows that one grade of coal — Central Appalachian — doubled over the past year.

Why? A recent piece in the Washington Post attributes the hike to “an untimely confluence of bad weather, flawed energy policies, low stockpiles, and voracious growth in Asia’s appetite.”

That sounds about right. But it should be noted that a large portion of coal use in Asia, the globe’s industrial belt, goes to making stuff for U.S. and European consumers. So that sentence could have have added “insatiable Western demand for cheap crap.”

Interestingly, the Post cites the coal-export boom for helping to moderate the gaping U.S. trade deficit, “which declined last year for the first time since 2001.”

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That leads to an interesting observation:

That means that, in a small way, higher revenues for U.S. coal exports indirectly helped the U.S. economy cover the cost of iPods from China, flat-screen TVs from Japan, and machinery from Germany. The still-gaping trade deficit of the world’s largest industrial power at the dawn of the 21st century was slightly eased by a fuel from the era and pages of Charles Dickens.

Nice, but the author left out an additional irony: that exported coal also literally helped generate the electricity that went into manufacturing those iPods, etc.

An article in The Times adds an additional wrinkle. U.S. consumers have so far been spared impact from the jump in coal prices, because power-plant operators here buy coal in long-term contracts, locking in prices for several years.

But when those contracts are up and the new prices are in, we can expect sudden spikes in electricity prices. One coal analyst tells the Times:

Watch out, consumer. You’re probably going to see accelerating electricity prices in 2009, 2010 and 2011.

So electricity will soon join food and gasoline on an inflationary tear. Fasten your seat belts — it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

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