King Coal’s tragic puppet show, Part 4: Field guide to distractions

March 15, 2013

Coal export is wrong (see Part 2) and it’s not us (see Parts 1 and 3). diversion distraction

To deflect attention from these show-stoppers, coal export proponents change the subject.  They propagate arguments to have arguments  to pose, debate, rehash  so as to keep us distracted from forming clear-eyed ethical judgments about coal export.

So you shouldn’t read this post.  Really, don’t bother.

….But some of us aren’t disciplined enough to ignore these arguments.  We can’t help ourselves; we need to noodle through them.  You are one of us if you’ve read this far.  So, I offer this annotated, illustrated field guide to 6 of the most popular coal export rationalizations.  But remember: it doesn’t matter, because it’s wrong and it’s not us.

1. “If the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point isn’t built, the trains would come anyway and offload in British Columbia.” 

LUMP ITThis argument is brutal in its fatalism.  It basically boils down to:  “Well, yes, it sucks, but there’s nothing you can do about it. So, communities from Billings to Bellingham:  Lump it.”  The argument is, thankfully, wrong, but it’s remarkably persistent – almost as persistent as Eric de Place at Sightline, who just keeps slapping it down.  His posts are the go-to resource on the subject.  Bottom line:  No more terminal capacity, no more coal export.

2. “Coal export wouldn’t increase net emissions; if we don’t ship it, Asia will just use other coal.”  Vic Svec, VP of investor relations for Peabody Coal, went so far as to tell National Geographic:  “It’s safe to say that not one more pound of coal will be used in Asia because of this terminal.”  It doesn't matterThis argument defies the basic principles of economics.  Asia won’t buy the coal unless it’s cheaper than the alternatives, and if it’s cheaper, they’ll burn more.  There wouldn’t be compensating emission reductions in the U.S., because coal is already in steep decline here (mostly because it can’t meet clean air standards and gas is cheap).  That, in fact, is why the industry is so desperate to beat an export path through our front yard.  See and hear:

3. “Powder River Basin coal is cleaner than the coal that China would otherwise use.” 

lipstick-on-pig“Clean” and “coal” never belong in the same sentence.  Yes, PRB coal is lower in sulfur, but that’s another reason why they would use more of it.  We all deserve clean air, but no one deserves the catastrophic climate consequences of encouraging fast-growing economies to stake their energy future on coal.  (If you think carbon capture and sequestration is the answer, then you don’t want to export coal now because it will lock in more coal infrastructure that lacks CCS capability.) See:

4. “We need the jobs; in a weak economy, that takes precedence over environmental concerns.” take this job

Coal export means a few jobs for some, but it’s a terrible jobs strategy for Washington.  If ships leaving America loaded with coal pass ships coming from Asia carrying solar panels and wind turbines and flat-screen TVs, who’s getting the jobs?  See:

slipperyslope15. “If we look at the climate impacts of coal export, what’s next?   Airplane manufacturing?  Wheat?” 

This is sort of a microcosm of the whole climate conundrum:  If everyone’s responsible, is anyone?  I haven’t seen much written on this yet.  OK, you talked me into it; I’ll post more on this later.  Initial thoughts:

– Before we get into the legal debate, let’s start with common sense.    In both sheer magnitude and direct causal relationship, coal export is, as Governor Inslee recently said, “the largest decision we will be making as a state from a carbon pollution standpoint, ….nothing comes even close to it.”  It’s one of the top threats globally among projects that would make catastrophic climate disruption inevitable. Are we really afraid that the slippery slope of analyzing climate impacts is more dangerous than the slippery slope of ignoring them, while aggressively exacerbating them, as the climate crisis deepens?

– The Keystone Principle is a useful screen here.  Shipping wheat may cause some emissions; but it does not materially increase long-term capital infrastructure decisions that lock in dangerous climate disruptionCoal export does.

– The same people who insist that climate impacts must remain outside the scope of the environmental review also argue that there are no climate impacts (see 1. above).  Hmmm.

Where exactly do you draw the line?  The courts will sort out the legal answer.  But there’s a right answer:  “Here.  Now.  Before it’s too late.”

6. “Stopping coal export isn’t the right way to deal with climate change.  We need to reduce demand for fossil fuels, develop better alternatives, limit and price carbon pollution…”  tHE RIGHT WAY

This is the saddest of the diversionary arguments, because it is so exasperatingly true.  Having devoted my professional life to those “right” ways of responding to the climate crisis, it’s a poignant reminder of how far we haven’t come yet.  And it’s a particularly bitter pill when administered by people who purchase political outcomes to prevent those solutions from happening.

But it’s still a distraction. This isn’t a hypothetical choice between rejecting coal export and adopting an effective global climate treaty. It’s a real, fateful choice between facilitating coal export and…not.  Stopping coal export certainly won’t deliver the climate solutions we need.  But if we don’t stop coal export (and other major new infrastructure investments that lock-in catastrophic emission levels), then all those solutions will be too little, too late.

I join those who wish we had made responsible policy choices that might have prevented this whole damned fight, and invite them to help us make those choices going forward.  But that’s not an answer to the coal export question.  We are where we are, and we’ve got an up or down decision to make.

We all need to be part of the climate solution, because we’re all part of the problem.  But condoning a massive expansion of global coal commerce – inviting it into our communities, spending public money to facilitate it, squandering our brand on it – would be more than playing a part.  It’d be auditioning to star in King Coal’s climate-destroying puppet show.

At the end of part 1 of this post, I proposed that after part 4,  “we’ll just rise up together, swat this insult to our shared values aside, and get on with our destiny as the region best qualified to show the world what sustainable prosperity looks like.”  Be it therefore resolved…


King Coal’s tragic puppet show, Part 3: Coal export just isn’t us

March 11, 2013

Who are we, anyway?  We had better decide.  Because accepting the coal industry’s plan to turn the Northwest into a mainline for delivering lethal doses of coal into the global energy system would answer the question.  But I’m pretty sure it’s not the answer we’d consciously choose.who are we 3

In Part 2 of this post, I argued that coal export is wrong, because it would materially contribute to fossil fuel infrastructure investments that make catastrophic climate disruption inevitable (the Keystone Principle).   But it’s not just generally wrongIt’s wrong in specific ways that make it particularly objectionable to us, here, now.  Coal export would violate our identity, partly because it’s so (did I mention this?) wrong, but also because it’s so, so,….retrograde.

We’re working toward broadly-shared, sustainable prosperity; coal concentrates and removes wealth, leaving poverty and destruction in its wake.  We’re about a high quality of life;  coal systematically degrades quality of life.  The Northwest honors its past and looks forward to a brighter future.  The coal industry tears up the past and burns up the future.  We have staked our reputation and our economy on innovative technology, clean energy, healthy communities, and renewable natural resources.  Coal is the opposite of all that.

Thanks to our abundant renewable resources and sustained investment in energy efficiency, Washington is now in position to become the first coal-free state in the U.S..  Seattle City Light divested from coal in 2000 and completely zeroed out its carbon footprint in 2005.  Washington and Oregon achieved agreements last year to phase out our coal plants and we’re moving toward retiring the plants in the Mountain West that serve our energy demand.

So how ironic, how tragic would it be for the Northwest to pull a violent 180 and become North America’s biggest coal depot?  It doesn’t just negate our energy strategy.  It’s an affront to our vision, our values, our identity as people and communities.  Beyond the quantifiable impacts – climate disruption, ocean acidification, air pollution, noise, congestion, public safety, water contamination, etc. – there’s a deeper sense that coal export would be a turnabout, a one-way ticket away from our best future.

That sense comes into sharper and louder focus with each new voice rising in opposition from Northwest communities – and they are legionHear them out:

Julie Trimingham of Communitywise Bellingham memorably said to NPR, “It’s almost inconceivable that there would be a plan afoot to change this part of the world to a coal export facility. It seems ironic or cruel, or misguided at best.”

Edmonds City Council member Strom Peterson wrote,  “Our futures are brighter and our communities are stronger because we are building vibrant local economies – great places where people want to live, work, shop, and play.  Coal export is the direct opposite of that vision.”

Sustainability is a core value, an organizing principle, and a prosperity driver for communities like Bellingham.  But what about Longview, a hard-working community known for heavy industry, gritty port operations, and raw log exports?  You might think coal export would work for them.  But they’ve got something better in mind.  Here’s the vision statement from the Cowlitz County Economic Development Plan, “The Turning Point”:

“Cowlitz County will transition from a natural resource dependent economy, embrace higher value projects, and raise its profile within a broader regional market.”

Coal export would bury that vision.  Reverend Kathleen Patton, rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church worries, “If Longview winds up becoming a coal-export facility, I really do wonder if that’s the last 135 jobs this town will see.  Who else would be attracted to come here? I don’t see how we can justify saying a few jobs here makes it all worthwhile when we’re jeopardizing the health of not just the planet but even the people who are supposedly going to benefit from this export facility.”

Defending the region’s identity against the coal onslaught might seem like a luxury if you don’t have a job.  But the Northwest’s commitment to quality of life and sustainable prosperity isn’t just a cultural amenity.  It’s one of our most important economic assets, our competitive edge.  Our existing job base and our ability to sustain and attract good jobs going forward depend on it.

As Pete Knutson, owner of Loki Fish Company said in his testimony at the Seattle coal export hearing:

“Anyone who claims that this massive coal project is about jobs had better learn to subtract.  We’re weighing jobs based on the one-time exploitation of a fossil fuel versus livelihoods based on a sustainable resource.”  And it’s not just fisheries.  It’s all the jobs and benefits that flow from the fact that this is just one hell of a fine place to be in so many ways that coal export would defile.

The tribes get the last word; no one speaks with more authority to the power of our regional identity.  In a powerful, prophetic ceremony last fall, the Lummi Nation burned a blank check at Cherry Point, a proposed coal export site.  Even King Coal doesn’t have enough money to compensate them for losing their culture, their home.

“No deals, thank you,” said Fran James, 88, a revered tribal elder called as a witness to the ceremony. “All of our elders have always told us: ‘Take care of this place.’”

Seattle Times photo by Alan Berner.

Seattle Times photo by Alan Berner.

The Northwest will be safe from coal export when we stand as firm and proud for our regional identity as Lummi Councilman Jay Julius:  “The Lummi Nation will not step out of the way.  We will protect with our every breath the ancient lifeway on these waters and honor our ancestors buried at Cherry Point.”

Click here for Part 1 of this series, “Live onstage in the great Northwest:  King Coal’s tragic puppet show”

Click here for Part 2, “King Coal’s tragic puppet show, Part 2 – Coal export is wrong” 


King Coal’s tragic puppet show, Part 2: Coal export is wrong

March 7, 2013

When last we left our intrepid heroes, the great Northwest had woken up to find itself cast in the wrong movie, sort of like Owen Wilson playing Richard Nixon (see Part 1).  If we’re disoriented, it’s no wonder – what, with all the crap flying around trying to convince us that turning Cascadia into a conveyor belt for coal is the best idea since Boeing.  So let’s cut some of it.

Coal export from the Northwest would increase coal consumption and carbon emissions, not just displace other coal. The coal trains won’t “come anyway” and continue on to terminals in B.C. if the Cherry Point project isn’t built.  Examining the climate impacts of coal export will not threaten airplane manufacturing or wheat exports, for Pete’s sake.  (In part 4 of this post, we further deconstruct the most popular rationalizations for coal export.)wrong

But as analytically weak as these arguments are, the coal industry wins just by having them. They serve the essential purpose of diverting our attention from the first, most fundamental reason why we should reject coal export:  It’s wrong.

Even if you could demonstrate that it would have zero effect on net coal consumption (and again, you can’t), coal export is materially participating in and profiting from an enterprise that sows death and destruction around the world. Many lives were lost, and millions disrupted, by Superstorm Sandy. Most of the counties in America were declared disaster areas last year due to drought. In January, parents in Australia sheltered their children from “tornadoes of fire” by putting them in the ocean. This is what climate disruption looks like. And coal causes it.

If we keep pouring capital investment into fossil fuel infrastructure for just a few more years, we will be locked into emission trajectories that make catastrophic disruption inevitable.  Arguments to the effect of “if we don’t do it, someone else will” just don’t hold moral water when “it” leads to unimaginably grave human consequences. It’s not right, no matter what anyone else does.

So far, the discussion of coal export has mostly occurred outside this moral context. But closing our eyes to the consequences doesn’t make them go away.  On the contrary, ethical evasion is the essential host condition in which injustices metastasize into historic moral crimes.

“We are not responsible.”

The whole edifice constructed for the express purpose of blocking climate action is built on this single, unconscionable stance. With each new definitive finding of culpability, fossil fuel interests devise a new dodge. The bottom line is always the same: It ain’t me, babe.

First, it wasn’t happening. Then it was happening but it wasn’t human-caused. (Damn those sun spots.) Then it was human-caused but there’s nothing we can do because China and India’s emissions will swamp us anyway. And now we might as well shovel their coal because otherwise they’ll just burn someone else’s. If we don’t ship it, the trains will just “pass us by” and offload elsewhere.  If we consider climate impacts now, where do we draw the line? Resistance is futile. Responsibility is no one’s.

So coal export proponents are part of a rich tradition of moral circumvention, offering a familiar litany of shirks and jives to deflect responsibility for climate consequences. Without relieving them of their accountability for this mess, you can understand how coal export enablers would default to a position of climate adolescence.  Their failure to accept responsibility for climate disruption is, after all, the prevailing condition of American society.  Denial is an ecosystem. When the President of the United States says in the same speech that we owe it to our kids to tackle climate disruption and we need an “all of the above” energy strategy, it’s hard to know which end is up.

But now, here, we have to deal with it.  Morally and mathematically, the gig is up.  If we aim to make it better, there’s just no more room for big capital investments that make it irretrievably worse.  Going forward with coal export amounts to looking our kids in the eye and saying “we are resigned to a future of unrelenting climate disasters for you, so it’s okay to make a few bucks now by facilitating that future.”  (Here is how they might respond.)  That may not be anyone’s intent.  But it would be the result.

How can we draw this moral line against coal export (or anywhere), when we exacerbate climate disruption every time we drive a car or eat an imported banana?  By invoking the Keystone Principle:  As we begin the long, slow journey to climate solutions, we must immediately cease making large, long-term capital investments in new fossil fuel infrastructure that “lock in” dangerous emission levels.

It will take decades to decarbonize our transportation and energy systems. We can do it over time, patiently and incrementally, building stronger economies and healthier communities as we go. But we cannot make big new capital investments now that irrevocably commit us to catastrophic climate failure. Driving to the store or eating a banana is not such an investment.  Coal export is.


Live on stage in the Great Northwest: King Coal’s tragic puppet show, Part 1

March 4, 2013

You could it see it coming a mile away.

King Coal rumbled into town with carloads of money, but they needed local cover.  Opportunistic PR and legal firms welcomed the business.  Sure, it carried some environmental freight, but it was okay because they appeared to be erring on the side of jobs – the only coin of the political realm at the time.

Then comes the reckoning:  Sightline Institute follows the money, exposing the hypocrisy of consultants using their green reputations to hawk Coal.  The Seattle Times does a big front page expose.  David Roberts at Grist takes the gloves all the way off.  The smackdown goes viral.  The consultants get their due.King coal 2

Betrayal.  Greenwashing.  Jobs vs. the environment.  Battle lines are drawn, sides chosen.  An epic battle looms.  There is dramatic fulfillment in this, a sense that we’ve fallen into a familiar narrative structure.  That’s what we do to make sense of the world:  find an archetypal story, fit reality to it, and then play our roles.

But before we act out this whole long, sad, bloody spectacle, let me just say:  it doesn’t have to be this way.  We shouldn’t be having this fight in this community.  We’ve been hoodwinked into becoming characters in somebody else’s story.  The real villain here is the desperate and dangerous coal industry. 

We’re tackling the climate challenge and creating jobs by building our clean energy economy and reducing domestic coal consumption.  It’s great for us and the rest of the planet, but it’s an existential threat to the U.S. coal industry.  So King Coal is hell-bent on reaching new markets.  They’re willing to mow down anything in their way, including us — the folks who are on our way to building the nation’s first coal-free energy system.

For them, that irony is delicious.  For us, it’s beyond tragic.

Since the coal industry can’t publicly represent themselves, they’ve built front groups, greased palms, and hired local talent so they don’t have to show their faces.  Not surprisingly, we coal export opponents connect the dots and call out the complicity.  The consultants got too close to the villain, and got the stink all over them.  I applaud Sightline for exposing this and demanding accountability.  But the whole damned coal-sponsored drama is toxic.  Dividing and devastating communities has always been the coal industry’s M.O..

We can’t let them do it here.  The great Pacific Northwest is not a global coal depot, a pusher for fossil fuel addiction, a logistics hub for climate devastation.  We’re the last place on Earth that should settle for a tired old retread of the false choice between jobs and the environment.  Coal export is fundamentally inconsistent with our vision and values.  It’s not just a slap in the face to “green” groups.  It’s a moral disaster and an affront to our identity as a community.

We have come too far together.  We’ve done too much to make our region a proving ground for a better way forward, a way that doesn’t end in catastrophic climate disruption.  We don’t have to play out this false and fruitless drama like puppets on a stage built by and for King Coal.

I know this appeal to our common identity may sound hollow if you don’t have a job and the coal industry has promised you one. But our identity isn’t just a green cultural amenity.  It’s the meaning of our past and the driver for our future.  It propels our economy.  It’s what makes this such a uniquely desirable and productive place.   If we squander our freight capacity, our waterways, our health, our quality of life, and our regional brand on coal export, the loss of jobs and opportunity will dwarf the blip of construction jobs building coal depots.  As Pete Knutson, owner of Loki Fish Company, said in his testimony at the Seattle coal export hearing:

 “Anyone who claims that this massive coal project is about jobs had better learn to subtract.  We have 15,000 fishery jobs in Puget Sound; now our marine livelihoods are at stake. A job is not necessarily a livelihood. We’re weighing jobs based on the one-time exploitation of a fossil fuel versus livelihoods based on a sustainable resource. We have a moral obligation to reject this proposal.”

When this whole drama is over, I believe we will affirm our regional identity – our core, shared commitment to sustainable, broadly-shared health and prosperity – and conclude that coal trafficking is the opposite of that.   What’s so crazy and sad is that people who share those values are now commercially obligated to argue that a massive expansion of global coal commerce is the right thing for us, the right thing to do as the climate crisis deepens.  No matter how much money King Coal throws at them, they will fail.  But in the meantime, what a tragic, unnecessary setback for our community…what a godawful mess.

Yes, they got themselves into it.  And maybe the die is now cast.  But before we concede that – before anyone in our community further commits themselves to repeat the demonstrably false and irresponsible rationalizations for coal export – I’m hoping some of them might be willing to think this through again.  Because the longer we play out King Coal’s sad puppet show, the worse it gets for our community.

This will take a little doing, because the layers of rationalization around coal export are so thick.  And this post is already too long.

So in part 2 of this post, we look at the most compelling reason to reject coal export – the one that should make further discussion unnecessary:  Because it’s wrong.

In part 3, we further explore why coal export is an economically and culturally devastating affront to our identity as a region and a community.  It’s just not us.

In part 4, we: a) catalogue some of the ways in which coal export proponents try to evade responsibility for climate and other impacts; b) demonstrate that they are false, and then c) propose that we should stop having those arguments because they divert our attention from what’s really important: it’s wrong and it’s not us.

And then we’ll just rise up together, swat this insult to our shared values aside, and get on with our destiny as the region best qualified to show the world what sustainable prosperity looks like.  OK?