Climate Change and Coal Export: Taking Responsibility

by James Wells

Coal dust blows at Westshore coal terminalCoal dust blows at the Westshore coal terminal in Tsawwassen, British Columbia, April 2012. Photo: Jerry Bierens, Delta Optimist.

We have had our say, for the moment, in the public comment phase of EIS Scoping about the Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT). As the agency folks work through our thousands of comments, it’s worth looking at how the findings of the EIS may ultimately be used by the agencies.

The ultimate agency decisions on GPT will be in the set of permit determinations and similar actions taken by various agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Washington State Department of Ecology, Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands and the Whatcom County Planning and Development Services (PDS). A dozen or more permits will be required for the coal terminal to be built and for it to operate.

In theory, to deny any one permit would stop the entire activity. Absent all of the required permits, the coal terminal would not be allowed by law. But it may be better to think of the permit determinations as being like a jury in a capital case: a unanimous jury is required, sure, but a case with just one or two holdouts generally finds itself back in the deliberating room until a unanimous verdict is reached.

For GPT, one permitting holdout would be the target of a storm of litigation and political pressure, while a scenario with several permits denied would very likely stop everything.

So it’s useful to look at potential stoppers — concerns that, by themselves, could be enough to halt issuance of several permits.

An obvious stopper relates to the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the project. The recent letter co-signed by the governors of Washington and Oregon emphatically states “in the strongest possible terms” that GHG emissions should be taken under consideration when evaluating coal export projects.

The operation of the terminal and the related ships and trains will result in certain very direct GHG emissions, but these emissions will be in quantities consistent with other development projects. The real kicker is the quantity of carbon dioxide emissions that will result from burning 48 million metric tons of coal per year. These emissions dwarf all others.

Do the Math

First, some very basic math. Expected emissions are generally calculated by use of emission factors which have been derived by engineering studies; multiply the tonnage of the coal by the emission factor, and you get the tonnage of resulting emissions. In the case of Powder River Basin (PRB) coal, the emission factor is about 1.8. So, burning 48 million metric tons of coal per year and multiplying by a factor of 1.8 will result in 86 million tons of GHG emissions, per year.

For scale, the entire state of Washington currently emits just over 100 million tons of CO2 per year, and our targeted reductions according to state law will result in a lowering of these emissions to 93 million tons per year by 2020, and then to 70 million tons per year by 2035. Therefore, just one coal port can result in approximately doubling our annual GHG emissions for the whole state.

This quantity of emissions would logically appear to be something that could not be permitted. There is no reason that a state such as Washington would implement aggressive GHG emission goals at considerable cost, only to later allow a doubling of GHG emissions due to just one new facility in the state.

The hinge point of this matter is whether the coal port will have to take responsibility for those emissions. Terminal promoters says that “China will burn that much coal anyway,” meaning that our providing coal will not measurably affect the quantity of emissions.

Potential responses start with the factual. When you add to the supply of something in a market, its price goes down. When the price goes down, more gets used. It’s called economics.

Leading by Example

Another important response is moral. It’s never reasonable to participate in something harmful on the theory that it will otherwise occur anyway.

But today, let’s go with another approach. Let’s suppose for a moment that the pro-terminal approach is true — that there is no way to stop further massive increases in Chinese coal consumption, that the coal will come from somewhere, no matter what. By the way — China already has plenty of coal, from domestic sources and current imports, for consumption at their current rate. Therefore, coal from GPT would be only a marginal supply intended to support China’s expanded coal burning capacity.

This scenario contains a baked-in assumption that there will be no systematic change in the way that the world approaches greenhouse gas emissions, global warming, and the environment generally.

Let’s be clear on the outcome: it’s very, very bad. For China, for us, and for the world. It is a profoundly dismal outlook.

Preemptively giving in to this worst-case scenario is, by reflection, the worst possible decision we could make as a community and a country. Giving in simply allows others to promote giving in as well, pointing their finger at our actions.

Promulgating this idea that “there’s nothing you can do” is not limited to the proposed coal port — it’s part of a larger climate misinformation campaign that’s been going on for many years. Previously, climate deniers funded by the fossil fuel industry focused their efforts on spreading doubt about the reality of climate change. That’s been shredded by recent events such as super-storm Sandy, so the fallback position is to say that nothing can be done.

The only real hope for salvaging our climate is to make decisions that, in every case, reflect and create the potential for much better outcomes. For instance, a very small number of coal countries, as few as four (US, Australia, Indonesia, Mongolia), could agree to limit coal exports to help meet global climate goals. An increase in the price of coal, as well as other factors like severe local pollution, may deflect China away from expanded coal use and into a further increase in its already very aggressive renewables development. The simple fact of the world seeing the United States make responsible climate choices could encourage and embolden climate action everywhere.

The Turning Point

Those good outcomes may occur, or they may not. The only certainty is that if we don’t even try, they will not happen.

From the list of possibilities above, just one example of a positive trend is the growing awareness and activism in China regarding the health effects of air pollution. Not long ago, the people in mainland China were generally willing to accept egregiously bad air quality in exchange for what was presented as progress. Very quickly, that is no longer so true, as members of the new middle class discover that they cannot breathe disposable income. Over twenty years ago, I saw this occurring in Taipei, Taiwan, which at the time had some of the worst air quality in the world. It was just horrifying, and one of the big reasons I left there in 1987 was to avoid ingesting more soot in every breath. These days, Taiwan has very good, and continually improving, air quality.

This very basic idea — that people in China care about their health and are starting to do something about worsening air pollution — undermines a line that we have been fed time after time. We keep hearing that China will increase their emissions of pollution, including greenhouse gases, no matter what. That line is false, and is intended for only one purpose, which is to discourage us from action.

The connected nature of the world economy and world trade may cause some people to believe they can get away with saying “it will happen anyway.” The connected nature of world communications will help us refute that fatalism, by helping all of the people who care about our environment to find each other, work together, and simply take heart in the fact so many people, in so many countries, are working right now to protect our environment and climate.


• Washington State GHG emissions are published by WA Department of Ecology — the most recent inventory, published in 2010, covers emissions through 2008. Total 2008 emissions were 101.5 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent. The emissions consist mostly of CO2, and in addition there are smaller quantities of other greenhouse gases, which have a stronger greenhouse effect than CO2. The report is at:

• Washington State GHG reduction targets are part of state law: RCW 70.235.020 (online at The 2020 target is equal to the 1990 emissions level, which was 92.9 million metric tons GHG equivalent. The 2035 target is a further 25 percent reduction from the 1990/2020 level, at 69.75 million metric tons per year.

• Emission factors for carbon dioxide emissions from coal are generally expressed in pounds of CO2 emissions per million BTU’s of heating value (MMbtu). An emission factor from EIA is 212.7 lb/MMBTU for Wyoming sub-bituminous coal ( ). That coal has a heating value of about 8,500 MMbtu/ton of coal. Do the math and you get 1.8 tons of CO2 emissions per ton of coal.

• A source of some confusion may be the fact of chemistry that, if you burn carbon, you get more than 3 times the weight of carbon as CO2. Starting with a standard carbon atom with an atomic weight of 12, you add two oxygen atoms and the result is CO2 with a molecular weight of 44, which suggests that a ton of coal would yield more than 3 tons of CO2, but coal is not pure carbon. The carbon that originated from decaying organic matter is mixed in with a variety of material, such as silt, that does not burn. Sub-bituminous coal may be 60 percent carbon or less.

• There has been an avalanche of news stories about air pollution concerns in China in recent months. This appears to be partly due to the fact that the problem is now so serious that the government is no longer able to keep a lid on it in the press. This is described in a January 14 New York Times article here:

James Wells develops systems that support energy efficiency incentive programs. He spends his spare time encouraging people to actively participate in the decision about the Gateway Pacific coal terminal.

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