Moving Beyond Coal Exports

Those who know me know that I’m pretty skeptical about all the hype over coal exports.

While it’s true that exports have increased, the vast (and I mean vast) majority of coal mined in the U.S. is still burned in this country.  In fact, the latest from the Energy Information Administration shows that in 2011, it’s likely we’ll have exported a record 100 million tons of coal (see the image below on coal exports from the EIA).  But even this record will be less than 10% of the more than one billion tons of coal produced in 2011.

Put another way, more than 90% of our coal–that’s more than 900 million tons–is still burned in our own backyard.

Put yet another way, it means that if we’re serious about confronting coal and global warming in this country, then we should look no further than our doorstep.

Despite this, I admit I’m feeling a bit more uneasy these days.  I’m beginning to believe there’s some truth to the hype.

Because the hype in this case isn’t just coming from disgruntled enviros in Portland and Seattle.  It’s coming from Arch Coal, from Peabody Energy, and from pretty much about every company that has anything to do with the coal business.  Take some of the latest news:

This is just the news so far in 2012, a little more than 25 days into the new year.  Suffice it to say, everybody in the coal industry seems to believe that exports are the next big thing and many seem willing to put their money where their mouth is.

The bottomline is, as companies continue to recognize that coal use in the U.S. is on the decline (Peabody says by 5% in 2011, a trend that’s likely to continue), the push will be to capitalize on exports.

For those of us who measure our progress in confronting global warming based on how much less coal we’re burning, that means we face the prospect of making little to no progress in the coming years.  The fire may move from our backyard to our global neighbors’ backyards, but we’re still stoking the flames.

Yet, while I’m warming up to the fact that coal exports are a problem, I’m also realizing that it, in reality, it doesn’t matter.

You heard me.  Who cares.

Far from my skepticism retreating to apathy, I say this because because the fact is, although coal exports are an issue, the solution has nothing to do with exports.  Our real problem is production.

Take the Powder River Basin of Montana Wyoming, for example.  In 2010, the region produced 43% of the nation’s coal, more than any other region in the U.S.  Although  companies in the region are increasingly revving up their export plans, the vast majority of the coal is still burned in our own coal-fired power plants.  And ultimately, no matter where the coal goes, the end result is the same–it gets burned.

Which raises the question, if coal burning is what we’re first and foremost concerned with, why is so much energy being focused on coal exports?

Because the reality is, if we can start to meaningfully scale back production in the Powder River Basin, or elsewhere in the U.S. for that matter, we can slow or even stop the burn, whether it happens here or abroad.  If we can go to the root of the problem, then we can really start to make progress.

Take the federal government’s latest plans to auction off nearly 7 billion tons of coal in the Powder River Basin.  Right now, WildEarth Guardians is fighting to thwart these plans and keep companies like Arch and Peabody from amassing decades more of coal supply.

If we win in overturning one, some, or even all of these new leases, then any export plans start becoming irrelevant.  And more importantly, we can have an effect on domestic coal burning, which of course, despite downward trends, is still the biggest problem on our plate here in the U.S.

That’s not to say all the fights over new ports, rail lines, or other export issues aren’t important.  It’s just that in the end, they won’t be hardly enough to keep the coal in the ground, and in the end, winning the fight against global warming will take keeping coal in the ground.

Even The Economist notes in its latest edition that while exports are on the rise, coal is on the decline on the U.S.   The message here is that targeting exports, even though they are problematic, promises limited progress, at best.

To keep coal on the decline, or even hasten its end, we have to strike at the heart that is production.

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