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Black Thunder Coal Mine North, in Wyoming's Powder River Basin. (Photo: Doc Searls)

Dirty Coal Exports Are a 'Global Shell Game'

Federal coal leases are essentially a major fossil fuel subsidy, Greenpeace says

Deirdre Fulton

U.S. coal exports and the federal coal leasing program threaten to undermine federal, state, and international efforts to reduce carbon pollution, according to reports issued Monday.

An Associated Press analysis of U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) data shows that while the U.S. has cut its own coal consumption by 195 million tons over the last six years, about 20 percent of that coal was shipped abroad, much of it to European countries.

Even as the U.S. promotes energy efficiency and cracks down on dirty power plants within its own borders, thereby reducing U.S. carbon pollution, it has increased its coal-export capacity — with coal producers and companies that sell coal seeking to expand that infrastructure even further.

Reporter Dina Cappiello writes for AP:

This fossil fuel trade, which has soared under President Barack Obama, threatens to undermine his strategy to reduce the gases blamed for global warming. It also reveals a little-discussed side effect of countries acting alone on a global issue. As the U.S. tries to set a global example by reducing demand for fossil fuels at home, American energy companies are sending more dirty fuels than ever to other parts of the world, exports worth billions of dollars every year. In some cases, these castoffs of America's clean energy push are ending up in places with more lax environmental standards, or where governments are resistant to tackling the emissions responsible for global warming.

It's a global shell game on fossil fuels that at the very least makes the U.S. appear to be making more progress on global warming than it actually is, because it shifts some of the pollution — and the burden for cleaning it up — onto another country's balance sheet.

It is difficult to calculate exactly how much pollution results from U.S. coal exports. When it comes to new export terminals, such as those proposed in Oregon and Washington, the federal government has been reluctant to assess how coal that originates in the U.S. could contribute to global warming.

But a 2012 analysis by University of Montana economics professor Thomas Power found that:

[T]he proposed coal export facilities in the Northwest will result in more coal consumption in Asia and undermine China’s progress towards more efficient power generation and usage. Decisions the Northwest makes now will impact Chinese energy habits for the next half-century; the lower coal prices afforded by Northwest coal exports encourage burning coal and discourage the investments in energy efficiency that China has already undertaken.

A sizable portion of the coal that would be exported from such Northwestern terminals would be publicly owned — extracted via federal coal leasing programs operated by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that allow private coal companies to mine and sell coal owned by the American public. As domestic demand for coal drops, the industry has been transparent about its desire to ship this cheap, publicly owned coal overseas.

On Monday, Greenpeace called for a moratorium on the coal leasing program, which it says is contributing to climate change.

In a report titled "Leasing Coal, Fueling Climate Change," Greenpeace uses the federal government's metric to calculate the social cost of carbon damages expected from publicly owned coal that has been leased during the Obama administration (2.2 billion tons so far), showing that one ton of coal has sold for $1.03 on average, but will cause between $22 and $237 in damages to society.

In total, the report finds that "the carbon pollution from publicly owned coal leased during the Obama administration will cause damages estimated at between $52 billion and $530 billion. In contrast, the total amount of revenue generated from those coal lease sales was $2.3 billion."

The federal coal leasing program, which accounts for 40 percent of U.S. coal extraction, is in effect a major fossil fuel subsidy, Greenpeace declares.

“Instead of giving away our coal for one dollar a ton, Interior Secretary Jewell should establish a moratorium on new coal leases and pursue comprehensive reform of the federal coal leasing program,” said Greenpeace energy campaign director Kelly Mitchell in a statement.


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