Michael Riordan in NY Times: ‘Don’t sell cheap U.S. coal to Asia’ | Guest column

Michael Riordan

Michael Riordan

Editor’s note: Orcas resident Michael Riordan’s  following op-ed piece on coal exports ran in the Feb. 13 edition of the New York Times.


Special to the Sounder

From where I live on Orcas Island in Puget Sound, north of Seattle, I can see Cherry Point across the wind-whipped waters of the Salish Sea. This sandy promontory jutting into Georgia Strait has become the focus of heated debate here in the Pacific Northwest.

Peabody Energy, Carrix and other corporations hope to build a shipping terminal at Cherry Point to export nearly 50 million metric tons of coal to Asia annually. They ballyhoo the jobs the terminal may bring to our region but say nothing about the profits they will reap from selling subsidized coal.

Opponents decry the prospect of the dirty, smelly, noisy trains blocking railroad crossings all across Washington state as they transport coal here from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming. They also warn that coal dust from the terminal will pollute nearby waters and harm our dwindling populations of herring, threatened Chinook salmon and endangered killer whales.

But much larger issues of national and global concern are at stake. The low-sulfur Western coal, strip-mined from federal lands, is valuable public property. The federal government’s leasing of these lands at low cost to strip miners made some sense a few decades ago when the United States needed low-sulfur coal to reduce the amount of sulfur dioxide that was being emitted by coal-burning power plants and causing acid rain. But today, as utilities convert to cheap natural gas and American coal use declines, mining companies are seeking customers in China, Japan and Korea.

Shipping this subsidized coal to Asian countries to help them power their factories, which undercut American manufacturers, makes little sense. Yes, this coal will help those countries produce cheap consumer goods for sale in stores across the United States. But it will also promote the continued transfer of industrial work to Asia, especially if the Trans-Pacific Partnership goes through. Is that good for American workers?

The coal is extracted from federal lands so cheaply that taxpayers should be outraged. A 2012 study by the nonprofit Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis concluded that the government’s failure to obtain fair market value for coal mined in the Powder River Basin had deprived taxpayers of almost $1 billion annually over the past 30 years. Last year, the Interior Department’s inspector general similarly reported that the agency was failing to collect sufficient lease payments. And last week, the Government Accountability Office concluded that the coal leasing program run by the Bureau of Land Management operates without sufficient oversight to ensure that fair lease prices are being paid and does not fully account for export sales in evaluating these fees.

“Taxpayers are likely losing out so that coal companies can reap a windfall and export that coal overseas, where it is burned, worsening climate change,” said Senator Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, who requested the study.

When coal companies can strip mine Western coal for less than $10 a ton and sell it in Asia for nearly 10 times as much, lucrative profits can be banked all along the global supply chain. No wonder the Australian coal company Ambre Energy is planning to build two coal terminals on the Columbia River. In all, those terminals and the one proposed for Cherry Point could ship 100 million metric tons of coal to Asia annually.

Asian nations hungry for energy have much looser pollution regulations and will pay dearly for coal, despite its noxious impacts on health and the environment. The health impact of coal emissions has recently become obvious in China, where this pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010, according to the Global Burden of Disease study, published in The Lancet, a British medical journal.

And this pollution is unfortunately not confined to Asia. Wafted aloft on winds blowing across the Pacific, it reaches North America, depositing fine particles, mercury and other toxins on land and in water. Carbon dioxide emitted by burning coal adds inexorably to the global overburden of greenhouse gases warming the planet. Projected exports from Cherry Point alone could result in over 100 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. The gas has already begun to boost the acidity of near-shore waters, threatening Washington’s shellfish industry.

The billions of tons of coal burned in Asia every year contribute markedly to global warming. Should the United States be selling them subsidized coal and encouraging this impending disaster?

Our nation needs a new, transparent, clean-energy policy that no longer turns a blind eye to the many negative impacts of coal burning — or to companies trying to sell coal to other nations playing catch-up in the global economy. A cornerstone of this policy must be the rational use of our vast reserves of Western coal as we ramp down the overuse of what is, by far, the dirtiest fossil fuel.

Is our economy to become a resource economy like Australia’s, exporting mineral wealth to Asia in return for mining and shipping jobs, plus cheap consumer goods? Should we support this Faustian bargain by selling our coal so inexpensively? What kinds of jobs and living conditions do we really want to foster, and where? These are questions a rational and much-needed, 21st-century energy policy would address.

A great and growing plume of carbon dioxide continues to rise over Asia as transnational corporations are shifting manufacturing operations overseas. We can take a resolute stand at Cherry Point and begin to halt this boondoggle. A good first step would be one Senator Markey advocates: a moratorium on new coal leases.