The top official at the Environmental Protection Agency said this month the ongoing legal fight over regulating carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants won’t delay the nation’s accelerating shift to cleaner sources of energy.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy spoke at Climate Action 2016, a conference in Washington on efforts to curb global warming. Seeking to reassure her international audience, McCarthy said the United States will absolutely meet its obligations to cut carbon emissions as agreed to in the landmark climate treaty signed in Paris last December.
“Over the last decade the U.S. has reduced more carbon pollution than any other nation in the world, and we are going to continue that pace,” McCarthy said. “While people are really worried that momentum may wane, that is not the case.”
More than two dozen states, including Wisconsin, have sued to stop President Barack Obama’s carbon emissions-cutting Clean Power Plan. The Supreme Court has barred implementation of the new rules until that legal case is resolved.
McCarthy said she is confident the high court will eventually uphold the new regulations, but she added that market forces are already phasing out burning coal to generate electricity as emissions-free wind turbines and solar panels plummet in cost.
“The market right now is saying that coal isn’t competitive,” McCarthy said. “It’s saying it louder and clearer every day.”
Wind turbines and solar panels accounted for more than two-thirds of all new electric generation capacity added to the nation’s grid in 2015, according to a recent analysis by the Energy Department. The remaining third was largely new power plants fueled by natural gas, which has become cheap and plentiful as a result of hydraulic fracturing.
It was the second straight year that U.S. investment in renewable energy projects has outpaced that of fossil fuels. Robust growth is once again predicted for this year.
Wind now ranks as the lowest-cost option for generating electricity, even before federal green-energy tax incentives are factored in.
McCarthy said electric utilities and investors are receiving a strong message that the economic and social costs of relying on dirty fossil fuels will only increase. Public opinion on the issue is also changing quickly, she said.
“You can keep talking to the climate deniers, if you can find them,” McCarthy said. “But I think most people, including in the states that are suing us on the Clean Power Plan, want climate action, and they want us to regulate the fossil industry for carbon pollution.”
President Barack Obama said over the weekend that he’ll ask Congress to double spending on research and development into clean energy by 2020.
But the request is unlikely to be fulfilled.
Republican lawmakers who rule Congress scoff at the science behind climate change and dismiss Obama’s pleas for the issue to be dealt with urgently.
In an unusual twist in Obama’s final year in office, the GOP chairmen of the House and Senate budget committees have said they will not hold a customary hearing on the president’s budget proposal the day after they receive it.
Obama plans to unveil the spending blueprint public on Feb. 9, just as New Hampshire voters head to the polls in the first presidential primary of the race to succeed him.
“Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future,” Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address, outlining his wish for the increased spending.
Federal spending on clean energy R&D would jump from $6.4 billion this year to $12.8 billion by 2020 under Obama’s proposal, administration officials said. Spending would increase by about 15 percent in each of the five years of the pledge. If approved, the budget that takes effect Oct. 1 would provide $7.7 billion for clean energy R&D across 12 federal departments and agencies for the 2017 fiscal year.
Obama’s proposal is part of the “Mission Innovation” initiative he announced at last year’s U.N. climate conference in Paris.
Some 20 countries, including the U.S., China, India and Brazil, have committed to double their respective budgets for this type of research over five years.
The White House said Obama wants oil companies to pay a $10 fee on every barrel of oil to help raise money for spending on clean transportation to combat climate change.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., immediately declared the president’s proposed oil tax “dead on arrival.”
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced on Jan. 15 that the Interior Department will launch a comprehensive review to identify and evaluate potential reforms to the federal coal program to ensure it provides a :fair return to taxpayers and reflect its impacts on the environment, while continuing to help meet our energy needs.”
This means a halt to new coal leases. The Interior Department referred to the halt as a “pause.”
The announcement follows President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, in which he spoke of improving management fossil fuel resources and moving the country toward a clean energy economy.
The review will examine concerns about the federal coal program that have been raised by the Government Accountability Office, the Interior Department’s Inspector General, members of Congress and the public.
The review, according to Jewell, will take a careful look at issues such as how, when, and where to lease; how to account for the environmental and public health impacts of federal coal production; and how to ensure American taxpayers are earning a fair return for the use of their public resources.
“Even as our nation transitions to cleaner energy sources, building on smart policies and progress already underway, we know that coal will continue to be an important domestic energy source in the years ahead,” said Jewell in a news release. “We haven’t undertaken a comprehensive review of the program in more than 30 years, and we have an obligation to current and future generations to ensure the federal coal program delivers a fair return to American taxpayers and takes into account its impacts on climate change.”
Consistent with the practice during two reviews of the federal coal program that occurred during the 1970s and 1980s, the Interior Department will institute a pause on issuing new coal leases while the review is underway.
The pause does not apply to existing coal production activities.
Also, the department said there “will be limited, commonsense exceptions to the pause, including for metallurgical coal (typically used in steel production), small lease modifications and emergency leasing, including where there is a demonstrated safety need or insufficient reserves.”
In addition, pending leases that have already completed an environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act and received a final Record of Decision or Decision Order by a federal agency will be allowed to complete the final procedural steps to secure a lease.
During and after the pause, companies can continue to mine the large amount of coal reserves already under lease, estimated to be enough to sustain current levels of production from federal land for approximately 20 years.
“Given serious concerns raised about the federal coal program, we’re taking the prudent step to hit pause on approving significant new leases so that decisions about those leases can benefit from the recommendations that come out of the review,” said Jewell. “During this time, companies can continue production activities on the large reserves of recoverable coal they have under lease, and we’ll make accommodations in the event of emergency circumstances to ensure this pause will have no material impact on the nation’s ability to meet its power generation needs. We are undertaking this effort with full consideration of the importance of maintaining reliable and affordable energy for American families and businesses, as well other federal programs and policies.”
The action builds on Jewell’s call last March for an open and honest conversation about modernizing the federal coal program.
Also, the secretary on Jan. 15 said the Interior Department will undertake a series of good government reforms to improve transparency and administration of the federal coal program. These reforms include establishing a publicly available database to account for the carbon emitted from fossil fuels developed on public lands, requiring Bureau of Land Management offices to publicly post online pending requests to lease coal or reduce royalties, and facilitating the capture of waste mine methane.
The full review is expected to take approximately three years.
Reaction to the announcement:
“This measure signifies a key step towards sunsetting a practice that has led to immense environmental destruction, human and health impacts, and is one of the greatest sources of carbon emissions worldwide,” says Amanda Starbuck, climate and energy program director at Rainforest Action Network.
Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said, “The Sierra Club applauds President Obama and Secretary Jewell for their leadership in reforming the federal coal leasing program and putting an immediate stop to all new and modified coal leasing. This program is broken, outdated, and does not consider the threat of climate change in our communities, and thanks to the Obama Administration’s leadership, we can proudly say that big coal’s destructive reach over our public lands is coming to an end.”
There’s a proposed item in Gov. Scott Walker’s budget that would waste $250,000 to have the Public Service Commission study the health effects of wind turbines. His transparent intention is to continue stalling on Wisconsin’s development of this renewable energy source, which is opposed by the real-estate sector and producers of dirty energy, including Koch Industries and Exon Mobil. Those industries have bestowed Walker with beaucoup bucks, and, as he’s proven time and again, he’s not about to let the state do anything counter to their interests on his watch — not even for the best interests of Wisconsinites.
If wind energy did indeed present a health hazard for humans, the world would be well aware of it by now. Wind energy is the second fastest-growing source of renewable energy in the world — behind only solar, Wind has contributed to increasing energy independence and job growth throughout Europe and Asia over the past decade. It’s also led to falling energy costs in nations such as Germany, where 31 percent of energy during the first half of last year came from wind, solar and hydro.
Neighboring Iowa generated 27.4 of its electricity from wind in 2013. The state continues to expand its wind energy program, with no reports of health problems that we could find.
But there’s even stronger evidence that wind energy is harmless, and Walker is well aware of it. Five years ago, 13 Wisconsinites from all sectors were appointed to the state’s Wind Siting Council. The council reviewed over 50 different scientific studies and found no evidence to support the contention of Walker and his shills that wind turbines are hazardous to human health. The only studies used by the council were those that had appeared in peer-reviewed scientific journals. The findings of the Wind Siting Council, presented to the Legislature in October 2014, should have marked the end of the story for wind energy deniers.
The $250,000 Walker wants to spend to duplicate a conclusive study on a topic that has long since been settled elsewhere could be used in many other productive ways. The Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters suggests that the money could go to programs that contribute to conservation, clean energy, or monitoring the pollution and contamination that we know are caused by the forms of energy that Walker favors.
The absurdity of Walker throwing away taxpayer money to hold up the production of clean energy due to public health concerns is laughable. Walker has never met a polluter he didn’t like. His environmental policies are extremely hazardous to public safety, including the relaxation of regulations for polluters, construction of the nation’s largest tar sand crude pipeline, which flows under every major waterway in the state, and revamping the permitting process to make it easier for operators of open pit mines to get approval without public input — just for starters.
This is not a partisan issue. Renewable energy is essential to keeping Wisconsin in the game, and the hypocrisy Walker shows toward it should offend every citizen who expects our leaders to do what’s best for us over the interests of their benefactors or in the interests of their political aspirations.
Of course, the Public Service Commission, which is dominated by Walker appointees, might just come up with findings that conveniently differ from all the scholarly studies on the subject. If that should occur, we hope that Republicans and Democrats alike recognize the sham for what it is.
A company that had planned to build the largest wind farm in Missouri near several wildlife areas has decided to look elsewhere because modifications needed to protect the area’s animals made it financially unworkable.
Element Power, based in Oregon, had proposed erecting 84 to 188 wind turbines near Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Holt County and seven nearby conservation areas. The company, which had been studying the project for five years, had leased 30,000 acres of private land near the wildlife areas since 2010.
Squaw Creek, about 100 miles north of Kansas City, has more than 7,400 acres of wetlands, fields and grassland that attract several birds, including pelicans, wood ducks, trumpeter swans, blue-winged teals, sandhill cranes, blue herons, snow geese and smaller shorebirds.
The proposed location of the wind farm was criticized by the Missouri Department of Conservation, environmentalists and birding groups, who said it would endanger the millions of birds and bats that migrate through the area.
Element Power officials recently notified Holt County commissioners that the company was moving the project because measures that would be required to protect wildlife made it financially troublesome, The St. Joseph News-Press reported. The company said it was considering other areas of Missouri for the project but did not specify where.
Landowners involved in the project also received a written 30-day notice of a lease termination.
“The reality of the situation is that there are other areas in Missouri that make more economical sense to build in and as such, we are working to move the project to a more suitable location,” the letter states.
Michael Hutchins, a spokesman for the American Bird Conservancy, said the organization is cautiously optimistic.
“This would be extremely good news from the perspective of bird and bat conservation if they are going to move this wind farm to an area where the turbines will be less of a concern,” Hutchins said.
[UPDATED WITH RESPONSE FROM DEPUTY DIRCTOR OF COMMUNICATION AT FRIENDS OF SCOTT WALKER, WHO ALSO SERVES AS COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR OF THE PUBLIC SERVICE COMMISSION OF WISCONSIN]
Sustainable energy is one of the world’s fastest-growing industries — and it’s the best medicine available for our dying planet. But thanks to the state’s current leadership, most of whom owe fealty to the fossil-fuel industry, Wisconsin is losing out on the jobs as well as the environmental rewards of having proactive sustainable energy policies.
Germany, which leads the world in wind energy, now receives nearly one-third of its power from that sustainable source. Many smaller countries are ahead of that record, according to a Sept. 14 story that appeared in the New York Times.
By contrast, Wisconsin’s goal is 10 percent.
Koch Industries, Exxon-Mobil and the other energy dinosaurs that exert a shocking level of control over public policy in the United States — and especially in states like Wisconsin, where their well-paid puppets firmly control every aspect of government — are running scared. Very scared. Instead of forging forward and ensuring they’ll reap the inevitable profits to be made from clean energy, they’re doing everything in their power to halt it.
Their actions are not only selfish and immoral, they’re bad business. Their pawns invoke Ayn Rand’s vision of capitalism to support their actions, but Rand did not believe in a system in which half-wits inherit oversize fortunes then use them to buy political influence that halts entrepreneurism and innovation in its tracks. In Rand’s capitalist Utopia, the green-energy visionaries would be the heroes and the privileged, fossilized obstructionists to industrial progress would be the villains.
David Koch, you are no John Galt.
It’s not just the Kochs and their friends who are terrified of progress, it’s also the public utilities. WE Energies is beside itself looking for ways to halt the growth of alternative energy.
We Energies has a proposal on the table that would force customers with 6 kilowatt solar panels (the average rooftop size) to pay $273 per year in “fees.” But let’s get real — those aren’t fees, they’re penalties. Another proposal from the regional monopoly would prohibit customers from leasing their rooftops for solar panels owned by others. This is free enterprise?
Madison Gas & Electric has similar proposals before the Public Service Commission.
And as if those assaults on clean energy weren’t enough to satisfy the craven multimillionaires who run WE Energies, they also want to charge all customers a $9 to $16 per month connection fee for adding alternative energy sources.
“If approved, these punishing changes will potentially shut down the clean energy marketplace in We Energies’ territory,” concluded Wisconsin’s John Muir chapter of the Sierra Club.
The Wisconsin Public Service Commission, which is considering these proposals, is a three-person state executive regulatory board that “serves at the pleasure of the governor.” Two of those three members, including the chairman, were appointed by Gov. Scott Walker, who’s frequently criticized for being in the back pocket of Koch Industries.
We urge readers to contact the commission and demand it to deny the latest corporate-right request to penalize clean energy and the environment. The deadline for filing your opinion with the commission is Oct. 7. To participate electronically, go to http://psc.wi.gov/consumerinfo/intervenor.htm. If you need assistance with the process, contact Becky Yoh at or at 608-261-8521.
RESPONSE FROM THE PUBLIC SERVICE COMMISSION OF WISCONSIN:
My name is Nathan Conrad and I am the Communications Director at the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin (Editor’s Note: and also deputy communications director of Friends of Scott Walker). A small clarification needs to be made in your recent editorial “Fight back against WE Energies’ assault on clean energy in Wisconsin.” While PSC Commissioners are appointed by a sitting Governor they do not “serve at the pleasure of the governor.” Each Commissioner is appointed to a fixed 6- year term, with the advice and consent of the Senate, to the quasi-judicial agency known as the PSC. (Wis. Stat. 15.06(1)). They are not beholden to the executive branch of state government and make all decisions based on the entirety of the record before them in an open docket. Commissioners cannot be dismissed simply at the pleasure of the Governor once they are appointed. (Wis. Stat. ss. 17.07(3), 17.001.) I ask that you remove your quotes to the “serve at the pleasure of the governor” section in the second to last paragraph — or amend your editorial to reflect this. Thank you, Nathan Conrad
Public Service Commission of Wisconsin
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Wide margins of Wisconsin voters say they want their state to do more to get energy from clean, renewable sources — wind, solar and bioenergy — and to improve energy efficiency.
Clean Wisconsin released the results of the survey earlier this month:
• 95 percent of Wisconsin voters support an increase energy efficiency.
• 88 percent support an increase in the use of solar energy.
• 84 percent support an increase in biomass energy.
• 83 percent support an increase in wind power.
“Voters clearly see Wisconsin’s potential to hold costs down, create jobs and become a more energy independent state by expanding use of clean energy and energy efficiency,” said Keith Reopelle, CW’s senior policy director. “Especially considering that Wisconsin currently imports more than $12 billion worth of fossil fuels every year, we have every reason to do what we can to create good middle-income jobs through clean energy development that will shape Wisconsin’s future.”
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Coal from Appalachia rumbles into Newport News, Virginia, 150 railroad cars at a time, bound for the belly of the massive cargo ship Prime Lily. The ship soon sets sail for South America, its 80,000 tons of coal destined for power plants and factories, an export of American energy — and pollution.
In the United States, this coal and the carbon dioxide it will eventually release into the atmosphere are some of the unwanted leftovers of an America going greener. With the country moving to what the administration calls cleaner natural gas, the president wants to reduce power plant pollution to make good on its promise to the world to cut emissions.
Yet the estimated 228,800 tons of carbon dioxide contained in the coal aboard the Prime Lily equals the annual emissions of a small American power plant. It’s leaving this nation’s shores, but not the planet.
“This is the single biggest flaw in U.S. climate policy,” said Roger Martella, the former general counsel at the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush. “Although the administration is moving forward with climate change regulations at home, we don’t consider how policy decisions in the United States impact greenhouse gas emissions in other parts of the world.”
This fossil fuel trade, which has soared under President Barack Obama, threatens to undermine his strategy to reduce the gases blamed for global warming. It also reveals a little-discussed side effect of countries acting alone on a global issue. As the U.S. tries to set a global example by reducing demand for fossil fuels at home, American energy companies are sending more dirty fuels than ever to other parts of the world, exports worth billions of dollars every year. In some cases, these castoffs of America’s clean energy push are ending up in places with more lax environmental standards, or where governments are resistant to tackling the emissions responsible for global warming.
It’s a global shell game on fossil fuels that at the very least makes the U.S. appear to be making more progress on global warming than it actually is, because it shifts some of the pollution — and the burden for cleaning it up — onto another country’s balance sheet.
“It’s not taking responsibility,” said Thomas Power, a research professor at the University of Montana who has worked for environmental groups and clean energy foundations and has pushed for a more honest accounting of emissions. “It’s shifting the responsibility to someone else.”
With companies looking to double America’s coal exports, the nation’s growing position in the global energy trade could make global warming worse, fueling the world’s demand for coal when many experts say most fossil fuels should remain in the ground to avert the most disastrous effects of climate change.
In 2012, about 9 percent of worldwide coal exports originated in the U.S., the latest data available.
White House officials say the U.S. will continue to be a small player with a negligible global footprint and the best way to address global warming is to reduce coal’s use globally. In the meantime, they’re considering adding crude oil and natural gas to the menu of U.S. energy exports shipped abroad.
“There may be a very marginal increase in coal exports caused by our climate policies,” said Rick Duke, Obama’s deputy climate adviser, in an interview with The Associated Press. “Given that coal supply is widely available from many sources, our time is better spent working on leading toward a global commitment to cut carbon pollution on the demand side.”
But as companies plan new coal export terminals, the Obama administration has resisted evaluating the global fallout of those decisions.
It says that if the U.S. didn’t supply the coal, another country would.
In Oregon and Washington state, where three proposed terminals would double U.S. coal exports, the Democratic governors are pressing the administration to assess the global-warming impact of that coal when it is burned abroad. The administration has refused to do so.
Guidance drafted by White House officials in 2010 did outline how broadly federal agencies should look at carbon emissions from U. S. projects. Four years later, that guidance is still under review.
Carbon dioxide, regardless of whether it enters the atmosphere in Germany, India or Brazil contributes to the sea level rise and in some cases severe weather that is linked to global warming.
The nexus of the challenge, and its international conundrum, can be found here, in Norfolk, Virginia, a low-lying coastal community that exports more coal than any place in the U.S. One of the region’s three coal export terminals, Dominion Terminal Associates, says that it supplies “Coal for the World.” At the same time, Norfolk is already experiencing one of the fastest rates of sea level rise in the country.
“Ultimately we would like to leave the coal in the ground. That is the best place for it,” said Joe Cook, a local resident and Sierra Club activist. He is fighting a much more local side effect of coal exports: dust released as it travels along rail lines, is dumped in massive piles by the dock and loaded onto ships. Cook believes that the dust is threatening people’s health.
When asked about the emissions from exports harming the planet, he said, “We have no control over that.”
As for the president, in recent speeches promoting his plan to reduce global warming Obama has highlighted the progress his administration has made driving down emissions at home.
“Together, we’ve held our carbon emissions to levels not seen in about 20 years,” he recently told the League of Conservation Voters. “Since 2006, no country on earth has reduced its total carbon pollution by as much as the United States.”
But that’s only part of the story.
The U.S. has the largest recoverable coal reserves in the world. Over the past six years, as the country has cut its own coal consumption by 195 million tons, about 20 percent of that coal was shipped abroad, according to an AP analysis of Energy Department data.
Last year, global coal use grew by 3 percent, faster than any other fossil fuel, according to the 2014 BP Statistical Review of World Energy.
And while less coal being burned here has helped the power sector reduce carbon emissions by 12 percent and left more U.S. coal in the ground, a growing share is finding its way to the rest of the world.
The proportion is expected to get larger as global demand for coal rises and the U.S. continues to clean up its power plants, boost energy efficiency and move to less-polluting sources of energy such as wind and solar. The latest EPA proposal on power plants envisions even less coal being used to make electricity.
The Obama administration, and the world, account only for coal burned inside their own borders when charting their progress on global warming.
“Energy exports bit by bit are chipping away at gains we are making on carbon dioxide domestically,” said Shakeb Afsah, who runs an energy consulting firm in Bethesda, Maryland. Pollution from coal exports has wiped out all the carbon pollution savings the U.S. achieved by switching from coal to natural gas, according to an analysis he published earlier this year. A 2012 report from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in England said the carbon contained in coal exports put back half the pollution.
On the other side of the Atlantic, in a town on the edge of Germany’s coal-mining region, sits a new power plant burning some of America’s coal. The 750-megawatt Trianel power plant in Luenen relies completely on coal imports, about half from the U.S.
“American coal is simply very attractive for us because of its price, and therefore we’re using a high percentage of it,” Stefan Paul, executive director of the Trianel Kohlekraftwerk Luenen GmbH & Co. plant, told AP.
During a recent visit by an AP reporter, workers unloaded South African coal from two barges docked in an adjacent canal. The canal was built in 1914 to send coal from the Ruhr Valley through Rotterdam to ports overseas. Now the coal comes the other way.
German coal mining has been a dying tradition. The government will end subsidies in 2018, effectively killing it.
However, Germany is experiencing a resurgence in coal-fired power. Five German coal plants have been built since 2008, and more are coming. While the new plants are more efficient and much cleaner than older plants being phased out, they are also larger and are replacing some of the nuclear power that the country has been phasing out since the Fukushima disaster in Japan.
The result: In 2013, Germany’s emissions of carbon dioxide grew by 1.2 percent.
This has happened even as the European continent has clamped down on the emissions blamed for global warming by increasing the use of renewable energy and instituting a cap-and-trade pollution system similar to one the U.S. Congress rejected in Obama’s first term.
Coal is cheaper than alternatives in Germany, particularly natural gas. So, too, are the prices on the carbon market in Europe. Companies can afford to buy the right to release more pollution.
“When coal is available, it is kind of like crack. It is the cheapest, biggest high that an industrial consumer can get,” said Kevin Book, an energy analyst at Washington,-based ClearView Energy Partners LLC.
In the U.S., the opposite is happening. Until recently, coal was more costly than natural gas, which is booming. Environmental regulations also are pushing the oldest and dirtiest coal-fired plants to retirement by adding more costs, and any new coal-fired power plants will have to capture carbon dioxide and bury it underground if the Obama administration gets its way. Few if any new coal plants are expected to be built.
But the U.S. and other countries have no problem supplying Germany and the world with coal. Last year, the U.S. exported coal worth $11 billion.
Of the top five countries receiving power plant-grade coal from the U.S. in 2013, four were in Europe: the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Italy and Germany. All have seen their coal imports more than double from the U.S. since 2008.
German environmental officials say the reliance on coal-fired electricity will make it hard for the country to meet its climate-protection goals. Activists partly blame the U.S.
“This is a classic case of political greenwashing,” said Dirk Jansen, a spokesman for BUND, one of Germany’s most influential environmental advocacy organizations. “Obama pretties up his own climate balance, but it doesn’t help the global climate at all if Obama’s carbon dioxide is coming out of chimneys in Germany.”
It’s unclear just how much pollution the U.S. is sending abroad or its overall effect on global greenhouse gas emissions. No one, including the administration, has calculated it. It’s a complex equation that includes global demand, natural gas prices, cheaper sources of coal from other countries, even weather. For instance, coal exports are down this year after a colder-than-average winter and higher natural gas prices in the U.S. caused power plants here to use more coal. Exports are forecast to be down slightly for several years before resuming an upward trajectory through 2040.
U.S. coal producers, and the companies that move and sell coal for export, are laying the groundwork for more exports. They see a growth market globally, in spite of efforts by the Obama administration to curb it. The administration has placed restrictions on U.S. financing of coal plants overseas that don’t control for carbon dioxide.
No such limits are in place for coal exporters.
In 2012, the U.S. Export-Import Bank backed $90 million in loans to XCoal Energy & Natural Resources LLC, a Pennsylvania-based exporting company, which plans to increase coal shipments to Japan, South Korea and China for use in steel and other industrial facilities.
Kinder Morgan, which owns one of the three terminals in the Norfolk area, earlier this year expanded its facilities to handle 1.5 million more tons of coal there. The company also spent $388 million to boost exports from Louisiana and Texas, mostly for thermal coal, the type of coal burned in power plants.
In Virginia, a coal-friendly state, the expansion has barely caused a stir. Coal has been leaving these shores for 130 years from Norfolk Southern Corp.’s enormous terminal.
The politics in the Pacific Northwest have been less favorable for coal. Three terminals proposed for Oregon and Washington would double U.S. exports, sending coal mined from mostly federal land in Montana and Wyoming to China and other markets in Asia. The plans have drawn fierce opposition from environmental groups, tribes and others.
And they’ve prompted some of Obama’s allies in the climate fight, the Democratic governors of Oregon and Washington, to point to what they describe as contradictions in the administration’s energy and climate policy and ask for a full analysis of the environmental impact both at home and abroad.
In a 2012 letter, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber said, “The impacts of United States coal exports on climate change are an issue of national concern that merits a hard look by a federal agency.”
The administration seems unwilling.
The lead federal agency in charge of evaluating the terminals’ environmental impact, the Army Corps of Engineers, has refused to analyze the contribution that coal from the terminals will have on global warming, despite calls by the Environmental Protection Agency to consider them.
The Council on Environmental Quality, the White House office in charge of overseeing environmental matters, has stood on the sidelines, though saying that the law allows emissions abroad to be part of the analysis.
A 2010 guidance aimed at clarifying how agencies should evaluate greenhouse gas emissions for major projects is still being reviewed.
“They have sat on their hands,” said George Kimbrell, a senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety, which has sued the administration over this delay.
Meanwhile, the state of Washington has decided to estimate on its own the quantity of greenhouse gases its two terminals will generate in the U.S. and in the countries that receive the coal.
Independent analyses have come to different conclusions about the impact the West Coast terminals will have.
A study by Power, the Montana professor, found that exports of cheap-to-produce Powder River Basin coal to Asia would depress prices, driving up demand and increasing the amounts of gases blamed for global warming. But another, by the Washington, D.C.,-based think tank Energy Policy Research Foundation Inc., said that expanding U.S. exports will have no impact on world coal consumption or global greenhouse gas emissions, because it will replace higher-cost coal that would come from somewhere else.
A federal judge last month faulted the administration for using similar logic when it failed to fully analyze the greenhouse gases from the expansion of a Colorado coal mine.
“The production of coal … will increase the supply of cheap, low-sulfur coal,” wrote Judge R. Brooke Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado. “At some point, this additional supply will impact the demand for coal … and coal that otherwise would have been left in the ground will be burned.”
Changing the global system to start looking at the flow of carbon out of the ground would carry political risks, especially for the U.S., which is trying to boost energy production and exports even as it addresses global warming. America is an outlier among the top coal exporters worldwide, making the most significant public strides to combat climate change. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a visit to Indonesia in February, the largest coal exporter in the world, told the country that if it didn’t do something on climate it would put its entire way of life at risk.
Australia, the world’s second largest coal exporter, recently repealed its carbon tax, in part because the coal industry argued it was making it more expensive to do business.
“The U.S. needs to be pragmatic on this,” said Jason Bordoff, director of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. “If our coal exports are very small and having no or little impact on global greenhouse gas emissions … the government has to take into account the economic and foreign policy costs of restricting exports.” He was a National Security Council energy and climate change adviser to Obama until January 2013.
The United Nations’ climate chief earlier this year warned that three-quarters of all fossil fuels must remain in the ground if the world has any hope of containing the planet’s temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, as the international community, including the U.S., agreed to in 2009.
Norfolk is caught in the middle.
In 2013 alone, coal shipped from here for foreign power plants contained 48 million tons of carbon dioxide, pollution that could come back to haunt this city. The sea level here is expected to rise an additional 1.5 feet in 50 years, even if the world stops releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere tomorrow.
Bob Parsons lives on a half-mile-wide sandbar, just miles from two coal export terminals, and keeps a chart on his garage door chronicling a decade’s worth of battles with rising water.
The highest line marks the 2006 nor’easter that submerged his backyard in more than three feet of salt water from the bays and inlets. Another mark, around a foot, was the brush with Hurricane Ernesto the same year.
“Sure, there is a connection between them, what gets exported out of here and burned and the sea level rise,” said Parsons. “They are still burning it. They are still polluting the atmosphere.”
Associated Press writers David Rising and Kirsten Grieshaber contributed reporting from Berlin and Luenen, Germany.
The University of Dayton, a leading Catholic university and the largest private university in Ohio, is divesting its $670 million endowment from fossil fuels.
Bill McKibben, co-founder of the environmental action group 350.org, had praise for the decision: “Earlier this year, Pope Francis said ‘if we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us. It’s very good news to see Catholic institutions starting to put his wisdom into effective practice, and stand up to the powers that are trying to profit at the expense of all who depend on the proper working of this good earth.”
University President Daniel J. Curran said the decision was consistent with Catholic social teachings, the school’s Marianist values and a campuswide policy promoting sustainability initiatives. “We cannot ignore the negative consequences of climate change, which disproportionately impact the world’s most vulnerable people,” Curran said earlier this month. “Our Marianist values of leadership and service to humanity call upon us to act on these principles and serve as a catalyst for civil discussion and positive change that benefits our planet.”
The university is the first major Catholic institution to join the divestment campaign and, at $670 million, the largest endowment yet to fully divest from the 200 fossil fuel companies that hold the largest coal, oil and gas reserves.
Stanford University recently divested its $18.7 billion endowment from coal companies, but is still considering divesting from oil and gas.
The University of Dayton’s divestment is planned to occur in phases. The university will initially eliminate fossil fuel holdings from its domestic equity accounts. The university then will develop plans to eliminate fossil fuel from international holdings, invest in green and sustainable technologies or holdings, and restrict future investments in private equity or hedge funds whose investments support fossil fuel or significant carbon-producing holdings.
Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, said, “We applaud the University of Dayton for taking this step as perhaps the first U.S. Catholic university to divest from fossil fuels. This is a complex issue, but Catholic higher education was founded to examine culture and find ways to advance the common good. Here is one way to lead as a good steward of God’s creation.”
The announcement came in the same month that President Barack Obama endorsed the growing divestment movement in a speech at the University of California-Irvine. There, the president told students, “You need to invest in what helps, and divest from what harms.”
More than a dozen universities or colleges have committed to fossil fuel divestment. So have more than 20 cities, 27 private foundations and more than 30 churches, congregations, or dioceses.