Purple orca: “Our coal is cleaner”

Give them an A for audacity and an F for factiness.

Coal export proponents are making the case that shipping vast amounts Powder River Basin (PRB) coal to Asia will improve air quality, because it’s lower in sulfur and ash than most of the coal Asia currently uses.  Seriously.

Now, I can see the sense in a good healthy discussion about the job impacts of coal export.  Coal export opponents should welcome that discussion, because blighting our communities with huge volumes of low-value, high-impact resource export traffic is a lousy jobs strategy.  Still, it’s a legitimate debate, so let’s have it.

But are they really going to try to sell coal export as a green thing?   King Coal has a bottomless “communications” budget for this effort, but there’s not a marketing consultant in the world who could sell that load of, um, coal.

Sightline Institute examined the “cleaner coal” claim and found that all coal is, by any reasonable standard, dirty.  (See p. 5 of Coal Export FAQ here. Then read the rest of it.)  While PRB coal is somewhat lower in sulfur and ash than other types of coal, it is also lower in energy content, so you have to burn more of it to get the same amount of work done.

So if Asia displaced some of its current supplies with PRB coal, sulfur dioxide emissions would be reduced a little.  But this herring is beyond red.  (Wait, maybe we shouldn’t use herring, since the Cherry Point terminal would hammer their most important spawning grounds.  Anyway, herring are way too small to convey the scale of the deception.  Hence Purple Orca.)

I don’t want to diminish the importance of local air quality, but honestly, it’s just not in the same league as the devastating global climate disruption  that will be unavoidable if the fast-growing Asian economies continue to build out coal infrastructure to power their growth.  And opening up a mainline to PRB coal would certainly encourage that outcome.  Justifying this on the grounds that it will reduce sulfur emissions is almost like saying we should ship plutonium to Iran because our enrichment facilities have much better environmental safeguards then theirs.

And let’s be clear, coal export means that more coal will be burned.  I know what you’re thinking:  “If we don’t sell them our coal, won’t they’ll just get it from somewhere else?  Won’t it be a wash, climate-wise?” It’s a fair question, but the answer is no.

Former University of Montana Economics Chair Tom Power explains why here.  We can expect the industry to hire consultants to argue otherwise, but I don’t think they’ll want to talk much about this:  The notion that it doesn’t matter whether we let our region become a hub for global coal trafficking isn’t just economically unsound; it’s ethically indefensible.  We are talking about whether to feed a practice that we know to be an epic disaster in the making.   No matter what anyone else does, it’s not right.

No one wants Asians or anyone else to have to breathe sulfur dioxide pollution.  Does Asia “deserve” the chance to develop using coal, as we did, without choking their cities with pollution?  Well, they certainly deserve it as much as we do.  But as Clint Eastwood said in The Unforgiven, “’Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”  If they develop long-lived, capital-intensive coal-powered energy infrastructure for 2 billion more people, we are all toast.

So look, there are at least 2 ways to approach cleaning up the air in Asian cities:

1) Send them low sulfur coal, which may have a modest near-term local benefit, while facilitating infrastructure investments that will make it impossible to avert catastrophic climate change.


2) Invest in efficiency and accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy here, in China and India, everywhere.  This would do a much better job of cleaning urban air.  Oh and BTW, it would open a pathway to sustainable prosperity instead of foreclosing any hope of a secure future with a safe climate.  Nice bonus!

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