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The U.S. Is Burning Less Coal, But Shipping It to China Defeats the Purpose

Environmental groups are trying to stop infrastructure projects that allow exports of coal to China.

The way we get power in the United States is changing. Over the past few years, coal has fallen out of favor: The federal government predicts that the power sector will consume 14 percent less coal this year than in 2011. Old plants are shutting down, and plans for new ones are being abandoned. Under new rules for power plant emissions, any new coal plant must do a much better job of keeping carbon out of the atmosphere.

In the United States, moving away from coal means using cleaner power and dumping less carbon into the atmosphere. But using less coal at home doesn’t mean that the country’s coal resources won't be used to create dirty power at all. Coal companies are looking to dramatically increase exports of coal to places that are hungry for it—countries like China. Exporting more coal, though, requires a dramatic expansion of infrastructure, including rail lines and shipping ports. So to stop coal exports, environmental activists are working to stop such construction projects.

Earlier in May, 14 Canadians were arrested for civil disobedience when they tried to block the path of a coal train headed from Montana’s Powder River Basin through British Columbia to the Pacific Ocean. And in Portland, a coalition of groups that includes the Sierra Club and the Waterkeeper Alliance, the group chaired by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., organized a protest against coal exports.

There are many reasons for locals to oppose these train and port projects: broader environmental concerns about coal, the noise, and the tons of dust that puff from the piles of coal as they travel, polluting the air. “It would have huge impacts on local communities—up to 50 coal trains per day passing through business districts, neighborhoods, along rivers,” says Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper. Plus, the pollution coming off the coal trains can cause health problems like asthma and pulmonary diseases.

But environmental groups also worry that by exporting coal to China, the United States will be wiping out any progress it’s made toward reducing its own carbon footprint. “No matter where this coal is burned, it brings us closer to a climatic point of no return,” the Canadian activists wrote to Warren Buffett, whose holding company owns the coal-shipping railway they targeted.

This is a fight that’s just beginning. Coal companies are aiming to export more than 100 million tons of coal off the Pacific coast to Asia. It’s still possible to nip this idea in the bud, before it becomes another touchstone of a broken energy system.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Jeremy Buckingham MLC

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