I’m testifying at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing today entitled: “Climate change; It’s happening now.” I’ll be calling for responsible limits on climate pollution, a fair price for dumping carbon in the atmosphere, and an end to federal support for new, long-term capital investments that lock in dangerous climate disruption (The Keystone Principle.) My written statement is here.
Last month, I testified before a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee about coal exports. Seated next to me was a witness representing the National Association of Manufacturers, who objected to the notion that federal environmental analysis of proposed coal export facilities might include consideration of the climate impacts of burning the coal.
He worried that such an evaluation would create a slippery slope, leading to climate impact tests for other products, including corn and toys.
A little bit of common sense should suffice here. The export of corn and toys is not one of the leading preventable causes of catastrophic global climate disruption. The introduction of large amounts of cheap, subsidized, American coal into the world’s fastest growing economies is. So we might want to look at that. As the President said in a landmark of understatement, referring to the climate impacts of Keystone XL, “It’s relevant.”
But the concern raised by the NAM witness is, in at least one respect, legitimate. Because we have no meaningful national climate policy, we are left to ask and answer these kinds of questions on ad hoc basis, leading to outcomes that are surely less efficient and effective than we could achieve with a thoughtful, comprehensive policy. The issue of where and how to ensure accountability for the costs of climate pollution is indeed a very important consideration for climate policy design. But in June of 2013 — 25 years after Jim Hansen first confirmed to Congress that climate change was a real threat requiring decisive and immediate action — we were not having a hearing on climate policy design in the House of Representatives. We were having a hearing on how to expedite coal export.
At that same hearing, the Army Corp of Engineers announced that it would not consider climate impacts in its environmental review of proposed export terminals. This stands in direct contradiction to the principle the President established when he said the Keystone XL pipeline is not in the national interest if it contributes significantly to increased climate pollution.
Ironically, on that same day, the commander of the Corps called for new, stronger standards for levee design and flood protection to cope with climate disruption.
Yup, we can count on the Corps to request larger budgets for responding to climate impacts (as, sadly, they should) but not, apparently, to analyze those impacts in the context of decisions which might prevent them. We are being set up for tons of “cure” at public expense, because we lack the responsible federal climate policies that would provide an ounce of prevention.
Hey, at least today the Senate is having a hearing on the subject!
Coal export is kind of like the swimming pool game “Marco Polo”: if you open your eyes, it ruins the whole game.
Wyoming Governor Matt Mead emerged as a stalwart defender of the eyes-closed rule last week, urging the White House Council on Environmental Quality to avoid any consideration of climate impacts in federal evaluation of coal exports.
He called assessing greenhouse gas impacts of coal export a “novel use of NEPA as a political opinion piece on global climate change.”
The National Environmental Policy Act is primarily a guide to procedure for environmental analysis, rather than a set of substantive requirements. Its most basic function is to provide decision-makers with a thorough assessment of environmental impacts: Whatever you’re going to do, says NEPA, do it in the daylight.
No, says Governor Mead. Coal export requires darkness. Open assessment of climate impacts would be “novel”, “political.” Using the nation’s pre-eminent environmental disclosure law to analyze the effects of the nation’s biggest fossil fuel development proposal on the nation’s biggest environmental problem would “undermine the fundamental fairness of the process.”
It’s a stunning admission, when you think about it: Governor Mead is all but conceding that coal export cannot withstand an honest evaluation of its biggest impact. It puts the lie to the coal industry’s unsupportable claims that coal export will have no effect on the amount of coal burned in Asia (see distraction 2., in “King Coal’s tragic puppet show, part 4: Field guide to distractions”.)
In a letter to CEQ, Governors Kitzhaber and Inslee called for full disclosure: “We believe the decisions to continue and expand coal leasing from federal lands and authorize the export of that coal are likely to lead to long-term investments in coal generation in Asia, with air quality and climate impacts in the United States that dwarf almost any other action the federal government could take in the foreseeable future,” they wrote.
And that’s exactly why Governor Mead won’t have any analysis of those impacts. A full, thorough, honest review of the costs and benefits of coal export proposals will sink them. So opponents fight on for light, while Governor Mead champions the only circumstance in which coal export has a chance: utter climate darkness.
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.”
This 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.” This 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.”
“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:
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:
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 disruption. Coal 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.”
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…
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.
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 wrong. It’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 legion. Hear 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.’”
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”
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.)
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.
Seattle Times photo by Alan Berner. Here’s the link: Burning Opposition to Coal Trains
This check represents what the Lummi people were offered to give up their treaty rights and allow siting of a coal export terminal at Cherry Point, near Bellingham WA.
Paul Anderson, a local photographer and opponent of coal export, offered the following thoughts:
Sept. 21, 2012
“There is interesting side story to the report about the Lummi Nation opposing the proposed coal port on their ancestral lands.
Jewell James whose ancestral uncle was Chief Seattle is director of the Sovereignty and Treaty Protection Office for the Lummi Nation and is one of the most revered Lummi’s. He is an organizer on this community event. Mr James is also a master carver and is responsible for the carving of many well know Totem and Healing Poles.
In 2002 James and the Lummi Nation delivered a 13 foot Healing Pole to a site north of New York City where the NYC Fire Department and several foundations held programs for 911 families.
In 2003 James and the Lummi Nation delivered an Honoring Pole to the Shanksville, Pennsylvania site where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed.
In 2004 James and the Lummi Nation delivered and installed Liberty and Freedom Poles in Washington D.C.’s Congressional Cemetery.
And most recently James and the Lummi Nation delivered a Healing Totem Pole to the National Library of Medicine.
Today Goldman Sachs, Berkshire Hathaway, Peabody Coal, SSA Marine, and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad want to build the largest coal shipping facility in North America on the ancestral lands of the Lummi.
I believe it is time for America to step up and support the Lummi Nation, I believe it is time for those that have been comforted by the the Healing and Honoring Poles carved by the hands of the Lummi People to pay back these kind and generous people who have given back to America time after time after time.
It is time America honor and support the Lummi People.
Please speak out and express your concerns during the scoping phase of the Environmental Impact Statement which begins Sept. 24, 2012″
Recent talk about leaving coal in the ground got me thinking: What’s it worth there?
The question looms large in light of recent and imminent federal leases to extract a bazillion tons of coal from public land in the Powder River Basin (PRB). Critics of the practice note that Americans are being compensated for this public resource at well below its market value.
But if you don’t happen to be in the coal business, the market value of coal-to-burn pales in comparison to the vital functions of coal-in-the-ground (hereafter, “coal ITG”).
Undisturbed coal delivers enormous benefits, like long-term strategic resource security, and locking up mercury that otherwise floats around causing neurological disorders. And the greatest value of coal ITG may be in the carbon it stores. That carbon was once in the atmosphere, as a result of which the Earth was a sauna with much higher sea levels.
What’s it worth to continue living on Earth as it is, rather than in, say, Jurassic Park? The value in the absence of large predatory reptiles alone is incalculable!
How might we estimate the value of coal ITG? Bona fide wonks should respond. But I’m going to take a quick hack at it, because the Bureau of Land Management is leasing the coal now. We need to assess whether the lease revenues fully compensate Americans for the lost value of the coal ITG.
Determining this value raises tricky questions about how a unit of coal might be kept in the ground, and whether doing so would actually keep the equivalent greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere (“leakage effects,” etc.) But let’s suspend those questions for a moment and assume that coal ITG is carbon that’s not warming the climate. Because, you know, physically, it is.
One way to think about what coal is worth in the ground would be to assess how much it costs us once it gets out and gets burned. EPA did just that in its regulatory impact analysis for new greenhouse gas standards. They estimate the social cost of carbon dioxide at $24 per ton in 2015, escalating to $45 per ton in 2050 (using a 3% discount rate.) Let’s take the middle of that range, since these coal leases go out for decades, and use $35 per ton of CO2. Figure a ton of PRB coal produces 1.8 tons of CO2, so the carbon storage value of a ton in the ground would be north of $60. (You can imagine other ways to calculate this value. See “Further preliminary wonkery,” below.)
So where does BLM get OFF selling that $60 a ton public coal ITG for $1.11 a ton (the price of the most recent federal lease)? Their primary justification appears to be that it helps Americans get cheap electricity. But the external costs documented in a landmark Harvard School of Public Health study at least double the cost of coal-fired electricity. And this false excuse completely falls apart when the coal is being used for export.
Is there any legal and/or political way for Americans to prevent this looting of our minerals, this pillaging of our climate stability, this fracking of our future? Can we hold the BLM accountable for fiduciary mismanagement of public resources?
Can we lay claim to the value of coal ITG, even if we have to buy our own damned coal back from the BLM so we can leave it in the ground?
It’d be a steal at ten times the going price.
Further preliminary wonkery
You can imagine other ways of assessing the value of coal ITG, for example, by looking at:
- Economic damages due to climate disruption, as the Stern Review did. Divide the total damages by the amount of GHGs assumed to be released, and you can derive an associated value for coal ITG. If you do it this way, you really ought to include the huge health costs of burning coal, as the Harvard School of Public Health did when they estimated external costs of burning coal for electricity in the U.S. at $175-523 billion a year. We burn a billionish tons a year in the U.S. Since PRB coal is relatively low in sulfur and ash, it’d be worth a little less than $175-523 per ton - in the ground - using this method.
- Carbon markets: If CO2 allowances were traded in a market that limited total emissions to levels consistent with responsible climate stabilization, how much would they go for? Synapse did an analysis that came up with a mid-range estimate of $26 per ton of CO2. Again, a ton of PRB coal produces 1.8 tons of CO2 when burned, so this gives us a carbon storage value of coal ITG of $46.80. (This is conservative, since assumed carbon caps are too high to prevent catastrophic climate disruption.)
- Sequestration costs: What if we can’t help ourselves — what if we just have to burn that coal and release the CO2? What would it cost to put it back, permanently and reliably? A Belfer Center study estimated the cost of first generation carbon capture and storage technology at $120-$180 per ton of CO2 avoided. Again, multiply by 1.8 to get the value per ton of PRB coal ITG.
..I’m obviously only scratching the surface with a cooked noodle here; we can wonk around with this all day (and I do hope better wonks will).
I don’t see the Northwest making a conscious, fully-informed decision to become a blighted industrial backwater (see, e.g., Newport News VA). The impacts are too enormous. The benefits are too small. The violation of our values and identity is too stark.
That’s why proponents of coal export act like elephants wearing green felt hats, trying to sneak across pool tables without being noticed. We would never choose a future as a coal depot, so the power and money of the coal industry is focused on trying to prevent well-informed decisions. If they can administer a quick slug of general anesthetic, perhaps we can be knocked unconscious long enough for them to begin the operation – a future-ectomy procedure, in which our bright prospects are amputated and replaced by the long, dreary nightmare shovelling of coal into the furnaces of climate disruption.
Two knock-out drugs are already being loaded into the IV drip: 1) coal terminal permitting processes that would ignore sweeping cumulative impacts, and 2) stealth leases for billions of tons of coal from public lands
1) See-no-evil permitting: Applications to build 3 coal terminals have already been filed, and at least 2 or 3 more are in the works. The scope of environmental review for the permitting processes has yet to be determined. But local decision makers in the terminal communities are reluctant to consider the full scope of effects – including cumulative impacts to communities and transportation systems in the rail corridor, the economic security and cost implications of exporting vast amounts of coal, and the significant contribution to climate disruption. As a practical matter, even if these decision-makers try to consider all the relevant impacts, the people who bear many of the costs – asthma sufferers in Eastern Washington, say, or future generations hammered by climate disruption – are unlikely to be well-represented in the review of a dredging permit in Coos Bay or Longview.
Local and state officials are sounding the alarm, calling for a comprehensive, programmatic environmental impact statement to examine the cumulative impacts of coal export. Governor Kitzhaber has been particularly clear and strong, insisting on a full, transparent, public review:
“It is imperative that the federal government take seriously its responsibility to make informed decisions, and that there be a comprehensive look at the energy, environmental, and public health impacts of these proposals before the nation commits itself to this path.”
The Army Corps of Engineers, as the lead federal permitting agency, is balking at the prospect, aiming to minimize the scope of its review under the National Environmental Policy Act. We met with Army brass in the Pentagon last week to discuss the matter. In a reply to Governor Kitzhaber’s call for a comprehensive federal review, Assistant Secretary of the Army JoEllen Darcy made it clear the Corps has a very modest appetite – limited to analysis of dredging, filling, sinking piles and such. What about the impacts to freight mobility, public health, safety, and the habitability of Earth caused by these export facilities? Not their department.
(We happened to be there on the birthday of the Army and the bicentennial of the War of 1812. A tank in the Pentagon courtyard was shooting cupcakes, and the Blue Angels were prepping for a weekend aerial awe-fest. Nothing – except their posture toward environmental review – bespoke modesty on the part of the United States military.)
Governor Kitzhaber, Senator Murray, Congressmen Smith and McDermott, and countless local officials and citizen groups have called on the federal government for a comprehensive environmental review – asking only that coal export be evaluated with eyes open to the full range of cumulative impacts. Senator Wyden, along with Congressman Ed Markey, has asked the Administration for a clear and comprehensive policy framework on fossil fuel exports.
But so far, the word from the Corps to state and local leaders and citizens in the Northwest is: Hey, don’t look at us, we just permit docks.
2) The great coal giveaway: By all accounts, the Bureau of Land Management is set to issue leases for another few decades worth of coal extraction from the Powder River Basin. If past performance is any guide, the federal government will sell the coal for a song. Tom Sanzillo, former Deputy Comptroller of the State of New York, estimates that the market value of the coal leased from federal land over the last 30 years exceeds the price by nearly $30 billion. (The value of the coal in the ground is much greater than the market price, so the heist of public resources is even more egregious. We’ll scratch our heads about the value of the coal in the ground in a future post.)
BLM’s analysis of the costs and benefits of the prospective leases assumed the coal would be burned domestically. The bargain was implied, and politically stable: the coal industry took coal from public lands for next to nothing, and Americans got “cheap” electricity. The merits of this bargain are debatable, especially in light of potential intergenerational contract violations. But the industry now hopes to export much of the coal from these leases. Whatever ambiguous value Americans have reaped from “cheap”, coal-fired electricity would no longer be part of the equation.
Let’s recap: the Feds would lease public land for coal extraction for a pittance; the coal would be transported through our communities, imposing enormous costs domestically, and then shipped to Asia along with whatever benefits come from “cheap” coal; to burn this coal, Asia would accelerate investment in coal-burning power plants which, over their lifetimes, would obliterate any chance for responsible climate stabilization. So, come again, what’s in the deal for Americans who don’t happen to own coal companies or railroads? With genuine respect for the folks who would get the few jobs building docks and moving coal, is this really a good deal for America?
Hush up, says BLM, the leases are a done deal. The agency has declined to undertake further review, despite the fact that their analysis assumed domestic consumption. The Federal Government’s eyes are glued shut, and US taxpayers are sleeping with their wallets out and open.
No way this goes down if everybody wakes up and smells the looting. But so far, zzzzzzzzz….
David Roberts at Grist and Stephen Lacey at Climate Progress kicked off a good discussion last week about the roles of “Yes” and “No” in climate work. This would-be schism dominates Climate Solutions’ strategy sessions, so I must weigh in.
Climate Solutions is a Yes outfit. Roberts nailed our MO: We’re all about “forging of opportunistic coalitions.” We accept “compromise, tedium, and endless setbacks.” Roberts says “it’s just more fun to rage against The Man,” but we’re actually to the point where we revel in “the boring of hard boards.” Our mission statement even makes it sound romantic, adventurous: “….galvanizing leadership, growing investment, and bridging divides”!
Here’s the thing though: With no meaningful climate policy commitment – no binding emission limits, no carbon pricing, not even a clean energy standard – the awesome work of building a clean energy economy is proceeding in parallel to the unfolding disaster of climate disruption, rather preventing it. We can say “Yes” ‘til we’re blue in the face, but we can’t call it “climate solutions” unless we stop the beast.
A local example: Here in Seattle, we made a commitment in 2000 to power our community with zero net carbon emissions. We sold our share of a big coal plant (which is now on its way to retirement). We let our gas combustion turbine contract expire. We doubled down on efficiency. We made the anchor investment in the region’s first big wind project. For the little remnant of emissions we couldn’t eliminate (utility maintenance vehicles, spot market purchases, etc.), we bought high-quality offsets. Saying “No” to carbon in our power supply was a launching pad for saying “Yes” to a clean energy economy.
By selling our share in that coal plant, we scrubbed about 400,000 tons of coal a year out of our energy footprint. Sweet. But if the current coal export proposals in the Northwest are fully developed, we would ship over 400,000 tons of coal A DAY through our communities to be burned in Asia (a third of it right through the middle of our iconic Olympic Sculpture Park on Seattle’s waterfront). Our clean energy economy, as my colleague Ross Macfarlane colorfully says, would be but “a hood ornament on the Hummer of fossil fuel addiction.” Our brave local “Yes” would be a joke.
The point here is not just that the bad stuff will overwhelm us if we fail to stop it (though that point alone is plenty to justify No). It’s that unchecked expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure undermines the credibility of solutions. “Yes” to climate solutions without “No” to these “game-ending” investments comes off as silly, sentimental, tokenistic.
We work with a lot of state and local elected officials who take on climate commitments. Almost invariably, skeptical reporters ask them something to the effect of, “C’mon, what difference will it make? Our emissions are a miniscule fraction of the problem. We could reduce our carbon footprint to zero and we’ll still have the same climate impacts. Isn’t this local action just symbolic?”
A good answer goes something like, “We’re not fighting climate change alone. Our city is joining with umpty-ump other communities, nations, and businesses around the world to deliver solutions. We’re doing our part and pressing our national leaders for stronger action. We’re proving up solutions that can work everywhere. And we’re making this a better place to live and work by [fill in co-benefits here].”
This is a beautiful story and we’ve done much to make it true. But nobody is going to hear it over the din of coal trains rumbling through town all day. If we take all the coal we don’t burn, and a couple of orders magnitude more, and ship it through our communities to promote global fossil fuel dependence, how can we say with a straight face that we’re serious about solutions? Yes is bunk without No.
Yes also feeds No. It’s like an immune system booster – building resilience and increasing our capacity to resist fossil fuel development. In Bellingham Washington, for example, the largest and most powerful business association is not the Chamber of Commerce but Sustainable Connections. This community has such a strong investment in “Yes” that the idea of becoming a coal export hub seems like an alien invasion. In a terrific NPR story, Julie Trimingham of Coal Train Facts says movingly: “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.”
Even in Longview, Washington, an industrial port community targeted for coal export, “Yes” holds a powerful allure. The vision statement in “Turning Point,” their local Economic Development Strategic Plan, says the community “will transition from a natural resource dependent economy, embrace higher value projects, and raise its profile within a broader regional market.” The coal export battle there will test the resolve and hope in that community for the Yes they’ve imagined. If they believe in it, they’ll say No to coal export, which is roughly the exact opposite of their vision statement.
Yes and No are interdependent, but they are not symmetrical with respect to the pace and scale of the climate challenge. The climate “game” must be won over the long haul. The winning strategy is a zillion Yeses, driving an inherently slow transition. But the game can be lost very quickly – Jim Hansen’s point in “Game Over for the Climate,” and the bright bottom line in the IEA’s World Energy Outlook. Yes is a patient, incremental thing. But the No we need to muster on tar sands and coal export is immediate and uncompromising.
Yet, while their roles and applications differ, Yes and No aren’t competing philosophies or alternative psychographics. Our political culture drives us toward niches, pressuring us to identify as Yes or No types. But if you want to be an effective climate advocate (or parent), you have to wield both. Yes and No are the interdependent and mutually reinforcing faces of responsible action.
The more successfully we say No to fossil fuels, the more we open space for the growth of the clean energy economy we envision. And as we open it, we need to fill it. We have a better idea than Peabody and ExxonMobil about what a good future is, and we have to keep delivering on it.
When we affirm and invest in our vision, we fortify our defense against the fossil fuel onslaught. The more “Yes” we say and do, the more credibly we can fight fossil fuel development with the claim: “We can do better” – a core message in the coal export campaign.
Yes without No is lame. No one will believe in the power of our clean energy vision if we let the fossil fuel juggernaut mow us down and wreck the climate.
And No without Yes is adolescence. The only way to prove we can do better is to….do better.