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Will Coal Exports Undermine Efforts to Curb Climate Change?

by Michael Levi
April 10, 2012

U.S. coal production is down but exports are up. That’s led to widespread warnings that efforts to curb U.S. coal consumption won’t do much if anything to slow climate change unless the United States bans exports too.

That conclusion strikes me as premature.

Brad Plumer, writing yesterday at the Washington Post, presents the argument for worrying about exports clearly:

“In 2011, the United States exported even more coal to countries like Brazil, South Korea and Europe, just as its own consumption was falling. That’s evidence in favor of the idea that if the United States won’t burn its vast coal reserves, then other countries will be happy to take the coal off our hands. And if that’s true, it would mean that the government’s recent spate of power-plant regulations aren’t helping the country make much progress on climate change. After all, carbon-dioxide that’s released by burning coal will heat up the planet no matter where it’s burned.”

But that’s only half of the equation. Increased U.S. coal exports will raise global greenhouse gas emissions if and only if they supplement other coal production rather than displace it. On that count, we’re actually flying pretty blind.

There’s reason, though, to suspect that a good part of increased U.S. coal exports would come at the expense of others’ output, which means that it wouldn’t increase net global greenhouse gas emissions. Last year, the IEA tried to model how country-by-country coal output would be affected if the world slashed its coal consumption. It found that Chinese, Australian, and Indonesian production would be cut deeply, but that U.S. production would hold up far more strongly. This suggests, at a minimum, that substantial U.S. coal exports are compatible with a lower-carbon world.

Of course, one model isn’t anywhere close to dispositive. Nor does the IEA sketch imply that constraining U.S. coal exports wouldn’t reduce global coal consumption further. But it does suggest that the possibility of U.S. coal exports doesn’t necessarily mean that cutting U.S. coal consumption would be for naught. This is a place where people with decent coal trade models – there are a few out there – could really help illuminate a critical policy choice.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by David B. Benson

    The coal mined in the Powder River basin is loaded into open hopper railroad cars. As the train moves coal dust is blown off the tops. Some small number of trains travel through Washington state on the way to an export terminal. Worse, there are several plans afoot to establish more export terminals in Washington state or just across the border in Oregon.

    Sorry, I’m a native and have lived in Washington state for the majority of my life. Don’t want coal dust.

    Love coal; leave it in the ground.

  • Posted by Russell La Claire

    Nothing good comes from mining/use of coal. It is damaging (mercury) from first touch to destruction of our planet.
    If others are keeping their coal in the ground while they burn ours, then sooner or later they will dig up their own and burn that. Don’t see any upside.
    As David B. Benson says above, “Love coal; leave it in the ground.”

  • Posted by Ravi

    It is true with any fossil fuel [like crude, natural gas,etc]… We have no idea what will happen if natural gas is removed from underground… Could be the reason for major earth quakes these days? It looks to me removing natural gas out of the earth crust is like removing air from the balloon…

  • Posted by Luap Leiht

    “Nothing good comes from mining/use of coal.”

    I hate to tell you this, but coal provided the power for you to type half of your post.

    Come to think of it, you might be right…

  • Posted by David B. Benson

    Luap Leiht — :-)

    But only about 1/4 of mine…

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