Why Does Old King Coal Still Rule?
Despite better alternatives and concern about climate change, coal isn’t disappearing any time soon.
Meanwhile, exports are hitting a glitch. Coal export facilities at ports can handle only so much volume, creating bottlenecks in the supply chain, and railways are near capacity. The coal-export facility at the Port of Baltimore has proposed a 10 percent expansion in capacity. Peabody Energy’s Gulf Coast export terminals plan to double Peabody’s export capacity to between 5 million and 7 million tons annually between 2014 and 2020. But perhaps the most hotly contested port expansions are the new coal-export terminals proposed in the Pacific Northwest. Western coal producers see it as a shortcut to the Asian market. However, efforts to develop these ports have been met with ferocious opposition.
Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, is happy with the export gridlock. Of the 200 new coal plants on the drawing boards in 2002, she says, 174 have been defeated. She says “the grand plans of the industry” to increase exports or develop the coal industry in India and China “should be treated with the same skepticism we should have treated those plans back in 2002.”
“Exporting coal halfway around the world to places that are poor, the math doesn’t add up,” Hitt says. “There are a lot of big dreams out there, but it’s very unclear whether they are really going to become reality.”
So, what exactly is our energy future? Ron Pernick is co-founder and managing director of Clean Edge, a research and advisory firm on energy and clean technologies, and co-author of Clean Tech Nation. He doesn’t believe in a single-source energy future for us, and says coal will have a role. “We will continue to be a very diverse energy system, but the future belongs to that triad combination of natural gas, renewables, and efficiency,” he says.
Shipping our abundant coal reserves around the world may be coal’s economic salvation, but Pernick says it’s not the answer and is perhaps even more problematic for our health and environment than burning it at home. “Shipping coal to Asian megacities with weak air pollution regulations means coal emissions will come floating right back from China,” he says.
Killing coal won’t happen any time soon. Living with it will be the trick.
Correction, Nov. 2, 2012: The first chart in this article originally mislabeled coal reserves as being in metric tons rather than millions of metric tons.
Lisa Palmer is a freelance journalist based in Maryland.