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

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…

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