Climate Change Concerns Enter Into Coal Export Debate

Jun 18, 2013

There are now three coal export terminals under consideration in the Pacific Northwest.

The prospect of exporting coal from Wyoming and Montana to be sold on the Asian market has many raising questions about the local and regional environmental impacts of moving that coal through the Northwest.

Ashley Ahearn reports on how that issue is playing into the debate over coal exports in Washington and Oregon.


Heavy equipment moving coal at a mine in Wyoming.
Credit Katie Campbell

  Thousands of people attended public hearings about the largest proposed coal export terminal in the Northwest. This is the Gateway Pacific Terminal, which would be built near Bellingham, Washington.

At the final hearing in Seattle 12-year-old Rachel Howell captivated the audience. But unlike many who spoke before her, she didn’t talk about coal dust or train traffic. She talked about climate change.

Howell: “My generation will pay a high price for the global warming that you do. This is the future that you’re creating for us and this isn’t the future that we want so please don’t build these coal export terminals, it’s just not fair to my generation.”

Howell’s words were met with loud applause and some watery eyes from the heavily anti-coal Seattle audience.

She’s not alone in her call to consider climate change in the review of the proposed coal export facilities in Washington and Oregon. Environmental groups, dozens of tribes and some elected officials have voiced concern over the green house gas emissions that would come from burning the exported coal.

But just how much would those exports contribute to global CO2 emissions?

Some numbers, real quick. Combined, if all three terminals are built, there would be about 100 million tons of coal leaving the Northwest each year. If all of that coal is burned, that would equate to a little less than 1% of the global CO2 emissions from energy in 2012.

Richard Morse is the former director of research on coal and carbon markets at Stanford University.

Morse: “Are the emissions that come out of the West coast if they export that coal going to make or break climate change? No. Is how we deal with that going to set an important precedent for other fuels and future more comprehensive policy? Yes it is.”

As of right now anyway, that precedent is not being set. The Army Corps of Engineers has given no indication that they will consider the impacts of climate change in the environmental review for the Gateway Pacific Terminal.

Bob Watters is with SSA Marine, the company that wants to build the Gateway Pacific Terminal.

He says climate change has no place in the environmental review.

Watters: “This is the kind of precedent that precludes our country from being able to go ahead and continue to expand our exports. Actually what it will do is constrict the exports that we have in our country and our economy.”

And Watters isn’t alone. The Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, as well as several elected officials and labor unions, have publicly echoed his sentiments.

Watters: “It’s a real slippery slope. If you look at the GHG effects of a product that we manufacture and export do you look at that with Boeing aeroplanes? The jets Boeing produces and sells to the international airlines produce GHG gases.”

Unlike Boeing Airplanes, coal is the single largest contributor to global CO2 emissions.

And according to a new report from the International Energy Agency, if emissions continue to increase at the current rate, global average temperatures could increase by up to 9 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century.

The overwhelming majority of scientists agree that the earth’s climate is changing and our green house gas emissions are contributing to that change.

Jaffe: "And what that means for our planet is very serious, in fact what that means for the Pacific Northwest is very serious."

Dan Jaffe is an atmospheric and climate scientist with the University of Washington in Bothell.

Jaffe: “It means snow packs disappearing, it means major changes to agriculture, major changes to our water resources in this state. We live on water. Its our electricity, its our salmon, its our agriculture, its our recreation, our skiing.”

The U.S. is a major player in the global coal export market – and hopes to be even more competitive in coming years.

American coal companies acknowledge that building Northwest export terminals to move Wyoming and Montana coal to the Asian market is critical.

Dan Jaffe says that even though that 100 million tons of exported coal may not single-handedly tip the scales towards global catastrophe, climate change shouldn’t be left out of the conversation.

Jaffe: "If we don’t consider the climate impacts from burning coal, whether it’s here or somewhere far away, pretty much the climate game is over and we lost."

American coal exports have doubled since 2007. If the three terminals are built in the Northwest, that figure could almost double, once again.

But despite the continued increase in American energy exports, the federal government has yet to release any sort of national climate policy that would take CO2 emissions from those exports into account.

Copyright 2013 Northwest Public Radio