U.S. Coal Exports America’s Carbon Footprint Around the Globe
In June, the EPA released its plan to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. The emissions guidelines propose “state specific rate based goals” to address greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel power plants. This is just one of a series of efforts on behalf of the Obama Administration to take the lead on global climate change. The coal industry fought unsuccessfully to stop the regulations. As a result, many of the nation’s more than 600 coal and oil-powered plants have gone offline, with many more expected to be retired by 2016.
With the cost of coal increasing as the price of natural gas has decreased (largely due to fracking), America has reduced, though not eliminated, its reliance on coal powered energy over the last six years. Renewable energy sources such as solar and wind continue to be added to the grid, but still provide a small part of our energy. Nevertheless, America has made significant strides in reducing the carbon dioxide emissions that are the cause of the planet’s global warming.
That is, reducing emissions here in America.
During the same period that U.S. consumption of coal fell, coal exports increased. For most of the world, coal still remains the cheapest form of energy and the U.S. has a large recoverable source. Several countries buy American coal including the UK, Italy, Germany and China. The Netherlands coal imports also get distributed to many other European nations, extending the reach throughout the continent.
Germany has been lauded for its investment in solar power in recent years. Still, it’s not enough to keep up with growing energy demands. Germany has been bringing more “clean coal” power plants online, having built five since 2008. Unlike in the United States, access to natural gas isn’t as easy and still remains very expensive for many countries. Coal is cheap and easily attainable. Australia and Indonesia remain the largest coal exporters, while Germany imports almost 50 percent of its coal from the United States.
Germany’s carbon dioxide emissions have increased significantly at the same time.
America’s largest client is China, which purchased 7.8 million tons of American coal in 2012. China accounts for nearly half of the world’s coal consumption as it tries to meet the demands of its population and growing cities. All around the world, nations are dealing with increased energy demands and don’t have enough of their own natural resources or, as in the case of China, the infrastructure and technology to access them to meet the demand. The American coal industry is more than happy to oblige.
We still consume far more coal than we export, but it’s not for a lack of trying. Geography has been a huge impediment to shipping. West Virginia is a large exporter of coal, where the Appalachian Mountains provide metallurgical grade coal to China and other nations. They have strong competition from Australia, however, which can ship for much cheaper.
Major companies are seeking ways to establish railways that head to the Pacific, where they wish to build new export terminals. The idea is to make it easier to ship to China in the hopes to become the largest supplier of the nation’s coal. Plans for shipping ports along the Pacific coast are in various stages of development, largely along the Oregon and Washington coasts. However, the plans have received a lot of pushback from environmentalists and tribes, as well as local and state governments.
The only ones not fighting them is the federal government.
The Obama Administration has authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to evaluate the impact of the proposed export terminals on climate change. Thus far, however, they have refused to do so. This has frustrated state governors in both Oregon and Washington, leading to them developing their own evaluation processes with mixed results.
The effects of emissions of coal exports aren’t just felt in other nations but in America as well.
The shipping of the coal along railways still spews ash into the air, causing health problems for anyone living along the routes. The burning of coal in power plants in China and other Asian nations emits the carbon dioxide into the air, which travels to the west coast of the United States. Carbon dioxide contributes to the rise in sea levels around the globe and the severe weather linked to global warming. Residents living along the coasts are already feeling the impact through property damage and losses caused by rising waters and intense storms.
Proving once again that climate change isn’t just local problem and requires a global commitment – no matter who is leading the charge for change.