Should the US Be Exporting Coal?

We all know that the journey to a sustainable existence on this planet is going to be a difficult one. Indeed, it might well be what former Xerox CEO David Kearns said of the company’s quest for quality, “a race without a finish line.” I say this because absolute sustainability is an ideal that can only be approached. But we need to accelerate our approach to it if we hope to continue to thrive here for generations to come. There will be difficult choices to make, and priorities to set, many of which, like in today’s story, will involve trading off short term and long term benefits.

At this point, thanks in large part to Wall Street, the game is heavily rigged on the side of the short term, and that is going to have to change if we are to have any hope of averting disaster in the brief time remaining, especially when it comes to climate change.

Which brings us to the question of coal. You might be surprised to learn that coal consumption in this country has fallen significantly. In fact, coal, which provided 50% of the nation’s electricity, is now providing only 33%. As a result, US carbon emissions dropped by 7.7% since 2006, while global emissions rose to an all time high. How did that happen? It was due to a combination of fortuitous factors including the recession, a mild winter, the discovery of additional reserves of cleaner natural gas leading to dramatically reduced prices, and the decommissioning of several antiquated coal plants (as well as the blocking of new ones), thanks to efforts like the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. Back in April, natural gas fired electric generation pulled even with coal for the first time ever.

Lester Brown, President of the Earth Policy Institute said, “It wasn’t expected it could turn so quickly and decisively.” US GHG emissions had increased by 10.5% from 1990 to 2010, which suggests that the drop-off was quite recent.

Meanwhile, as annual consumption dropped to 206.9 million tons, stockpiles have reached 244 million tons. So what shall we do with all that extra coal?Demand for coal remains high, especially in places like China which consumed 3.7 billion tons last year. So the US has begun exporting it. Exports were up 3.5% last year and now, sensing a business opportunity, some mines in Appalachia export all of their coal.

So what’s not to like? It positively impacts our balance of trade, brings in revenue, creates or retains jobs. From the profit side of the equation, it seems to be all upside.

But when you bring in people and the planet, it doesn’t smell so good.

First of all, coal mining is a very dirty business, creating major health risks and environmental havoc and when you include these things, it’s clear that coal plants do more harm than good.

Bad enough to subject the folks living in coal mining areas to these hazards when we need the coal to survive. But to export the coal just for profit, is an even tougher sell. According to Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) “The coal may be shipped to foreign markets, but the diseases, the destroyed mountaintops and the environmental ruin from these destructive practices are staying right here in America.”

Then, there is the question of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Since the US and China happen to share the same atmosphere and the same planet, all of this smoke will just blow back in our face, so to speak.

Finally, if we make our coal available to these countries, that will help keep prices down, reducing incentive for them to move to natural gas and renewables.

Of course the coal companies won’t agree, and who can blame them? In an interview with Fox News, Jason Hayes of the American Coal Council said that efforts like Beyond Coal have cost the economy 1.2 million jobs. “Having done that at a time when the unemployment rate is 9.1 percent, “ he said, “if you’re going to toot your horn, you have to live with full spectrum of what your actions has brought.”

Of course this loss of jobs is regrettable and would clearly get worse were the exports to stop. Power plant operators can move to gas-fired plants. But coal miners will be in tough spot. Of course, they have been in a tough spot since the coal business began. And they will almost surely be better off in the long run, once they find alernatives. But the short term will be a hardship. But is that reason enough to keep mining the stuff? Folks in the Pacific Northwest are up in arms at the prospect of massive coal terminals that are now being proposed.

This is the nature of a capitalist economy. If you’re in the wrong business, or if progress passes you by and you don’t adapt, then you fail. That’s the way it works. Look at Eastman Kodak who had to lay off thousands of workers when their 100-plus year old film business was superseded by digital photography. Are the coal companies any different? They had decades to develop cleaner and safer methods of getting coal out of the ground and using it to generate power. Instead, they just looked for ways to get it ever-more cheaply in order to increase profits, continuously putting short term interest ahead of long-term strategy. Today, coal mining is more dangerous and destructive than ever. Yes, they now find themselves in an urgent situation. But as the old English proverb says, “a lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.”
[Image credit: Gibson Station at night, Duke Energy, Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is a consultant, inventor and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.

RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact:

4 responses

  1. Regarding exporting coal:

    “From the profit side of the equation, it seems to be all upside. But when you bring in people and the planet, it doesn’t smell so good.”

    Excellent use of the simple triple-bottom-line algorithm, RP.

    What if capitalism could be tweaked and required to apply the balanced people-planet-profit formula?

    Is this concept too complex for our species to grasp?

    Developing a Sustainable Civilization

    1.  Thanks, Terry
      I totally agree with you. If we don’t grasp it and grasp it soon, there’s no telling how bad things could get.The new balance will need to be much different than what it is now. In the brief time that profit has ruled, it has practically destroyed the planet.James Hansen now says he was too optimistic before.–and-worse-th%20an-we-thought/2012/08/03/6ae604c2-dd90-11e1-8e43-4a3c4375504a_story.html

  2. If any one use coal,as most if it is very dirty, & they are going to use coal anyway we should sell them Alaska coal .  Alaska coal is the cleanest coal to use. Most of the coal is so dirty It will harm us world wide. So supply them with a cleaner coal to use till they can change over.

    China knows that the kids that live near coal power plants puts out so much floride in the air that the IQ of the kids have droped like a rock. This is why China does not put floride in the water. Floride drops the IQ of a kid like a rock. But they need power & will alow a small town to have this proublem So a great number can have a better life.

    Hell we put floride in our drinking water in almost all the city’s & towns. We don’t even think anything of it.

    So sell them a cleaner coal & pay our debts off, keepping some jobs here.

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