So far, protests about the proposed exports have mostly been local affairs, led by those living along the railroads that will transport the coal from mines in Wyoming and Montana to planned ports on the Pacific coast. There’s been nothing like the national controversy surrounding the Keystone XL pipeline – the plan to pump oil from Canada’s tar sands to refineries in Texas. Yet according to New Scientist‘s analysis of calculations by carbon emissions specialists, the consequences for the global climate of allowing the coal exports could exceed those of completing the oil pipeline.
The Powder River Basin, which straddles north-east Wyoming and south-east Montana, houses the largest economically recoverable reserve of coal in the US. Some 40 per cent of the fuel used in US coal-fired power plants comes from the region – but domestic demand is waning.
A glut of cheap natural gas is tipping the balance away from coal. Meanwhile, regulations on power plants’ greenhouse gas emissions proposed by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in April could amount to a de facto ban on new coal-fired plants across the nation.
As a result, increased exports are the only way for the industry to grow in the near future. “Certainly there’s a huge demand in the rest of the world for affordable, reliable electricity,” says Marion Loomis, director of the Wyoming Mining Association.
If exports surge, community activists fear that their rural existence will be shattered, while business groups argue that the exports will create thousands of jobs in mining, transportation and construction.
“The investors are hoping that it’s going to explode, and the environmental and community groups are afraid it’s going to explode,” says Thomas Power, a resource economist at the University of Montana.
About 7 million tonnes of Powder River Basin coal is already exported to Asia each year through Canada. But an export boom will depend on the construction of new port terminals along the coast of Oregon and Washington, and on the Columbia river, which divides the two states.
Proposals to build three ports (see map) have been submitted to the US Army Corps of Engineers, which will consider whether to grant approval based on their likely environmental impacts. If built, these ports could ramp up exports of Powder River Basin coal to about 100 million tonnes annually – and two more port proposals in the works could bring the total to 135 million tonnes per year.
According to New Scientist‘s calculations, based on emissions figures for Powder River Basin coal estimated by the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Pittsburgh, burning the exported coal, plus its extraction and transport by rail and ship, could cause annual greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 194 million tonnes of carbon dioxide if just the first three ports are built. That rises to as much as 266 million tonnes if all five come online.
To put these numbers in context, New Scientist asked Adam Brandt of Stanford University in California, who specialises in estimating greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel sources, to produce similar figures for Keystone XL. If the pipeline flows at its maximum capacity, he calculates that total annual greenhouse emissions resulting from the project, again including those due to extraction and transport of the fuel as well as its final use, would equate to 212 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.
If the ports aren’t built, much of the Powder River Basin coal would probably remain in the ground for the foreseeable future. Projecting out to 2030, Matt Preston, a coal analyst for the consulting firm Wood Mackenzie in Annapolis, Maryland, estimates that domestic demand is likely to be less than a third of the potential exports.
By contrast, Canada’s government is determined to exploit its tar sands come what may, vowing to ship oil to Asia if Keystone XL is cancelled.
The pipeline’s fate will depend on an environmental review to be completed in 2013. Meanwhile, the future of coal exports will be battled out port by port. First will be the smallest of the initial three proposals, dubbed the Morrow Pacific Project, which would see a terminal with an export capacity of 8 million tonnes per year built on the Columbia river at Boardman in Oregon.
The Corps of Engineers office in Portland has received 30,000 public comments on this proposal. These include a lengthy submission from an alliance of health, community and environmental groups, raising concerns about greenhouse gas emissions and increased train traffic, as well as regional water and air quality. Oregon’s governor, regional tribal governments and the EPA have weighed in with similar comments.
Last month, opponents suffered a setback when the Corps of Engineers opted for a narrow review, considering only local environmental impacts, which could be completed in a matter of months. Still, environmental campaigners hope the Corps will change its mind. “I think it would be foolish for them to fast-track this project without taking a hard look at the impacts,” says Brett VandenHeuvel of the environmental group Columbia Riverkeeper, based in Oregon.
The much larger Gateway Pacific and Millennium Bulk terminals, in Washington state, will require full environmental impact statements – which would take a couple of years to complete. But it’s unclear whether even these reviews will take climate change into account. “I can’t even speculate on the scope since we’ve just started the process,” says Patricia Graesser at the Corps of Engineers office in Seattle.
As the Corps considers its options, the first wave of civil disobedience against coal exports is stirring. In May, Mark Jaccard, one of Canada’s leading environmental economists, was among 13 protesters arrested standing on the tracks to halt a train laden with Wyoming coal bound for the coast of British Columbia. Direct action is the right thing to do “if you know what I know”, says Jaccard, of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.
It’s still a pale shadow of the furore surrounding Keystone XL, which saw more than 1000 activists arrested after protests in front of the White House in August 2011, and last week saw actor Daryl Hannah detained for protesting in Texas. But given the high stakes, expect protests against the coal exports to swell.