Tag Archives: coal

Britain’s last coal pit closes

Coal once fueled the British Empire, employed armies of men and shook the power of governments.

Earlier this month, workers at Britain’s last operating deep coal mine finished their final shift, emerging — soot-blackened and live on television news channels — to cheers, applause and tears.

Some of the men carried lumps of coal as mementoes from the Kellingley Colliery, 200 miles north of London. The last haul of coal from the pit is destined for a mining museum as a once-mighty industry fades into history.

“There’s a few lads shedding tears, just getting all emotional,” said miner Neil Townend, 51.

Defiant to the end, the Kellingley miners sang a hit by Tom Jones — the son of a Welsh coal miner — as they headed underground for the last time.

“This is what makes us very special, the mining community,” said Nigel Kemp, who worked at the mine for more than 30 years. “The men have gone down today singing ‘My, my, my, Delilah.’ Every single man on the cage, you could hear them 400 feet down singing.”

At its peak in the 1920s, Britain’s mining industry employed more than 1 million people, as coal powered trains, fueled factories and heated homes. After World War II, the country still had 750,000 underground miners at almost 1,000 coal pits, but the industry’s days were already numbered.

With gas and nuclear power on the rise, hundreds of coal mines had closed by 1984, when a showdown between the British government and the miners cemented the industry’s central — and contested — place in Britain’s national mythology.

Thousands of miners went on strike hoping to scuttle then-Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s plan to shut down 20 pits and lose 20,000 jobs in an effort to destroy the powerful mining unions, which for years had used their economic clout to extract concessions from British governments.

The bitter, yearlong struggle brought violent picket-line clashes and ended in victory for the government. Since then, changing economic demands and cheap imported coal have all but wiped out Britain’s mining industry.

Britain still gets a fifth of its electricity from coal, although that is giving way to cleaner alternatives. Almost half the country’s power now comes from nuclear or renewable sources like wind and solar, and Britain has agreed to sharply cut its greenhouse gas emissions under an international deal to limit climate change signed in Paris last week.

And it’s not just Britain _ the world as a whole agreed to move away from using fossil fuels, including coal, that are blamed for global warming.

With coal prices lower than they have been for years, it’s cheaper to import coal from countries including Russia, Colombia and the United States than to dig it out of British soil. Critics say some of those countries have lower wages and worse safety records than Britain.

Britain still has several open-cast mines as well as a handful of idle pits that could be reopened if needed, but Kellingley was the last deep mine producing coal on a large scale. Its closure marks the end of an industry that was dirty and dangerous but brought pride and purpose to close-knit communities.

“Everything spread from the pit,” said Andy Smith, acting director of the National Coal Mining Museum, which plans to put the last ton of coal from Kellingley on display.

“Community spirit came from working in the pit. If you didn’t work in the pit, you were involved in making mine machinery, or supplying the mine canteen with bread or pork pies. (There were) sports and social clubs,” he said. “Every pit that has shut over the last 50 years, the community has suffered.”

Demonstrators: ‘No Planet B’ in fight against global warming

More than half a million people from Australia to Paraguay joined the biggest day of climate change activism in history on Nov. 29, telling world leaders gathering for a summit in Paris there is “No Planet B” in the fight against global warming.

In the French capital, where demonstrations were banned by the authorities after attacks by Islamic State militants killed 130 people on Nov. 13, activists laid out more than 20,000 shoes in the Place de la Republique to symbolize absent marchers on the eve of the summit.

Among the high heels and sandals were a pair of plain black shoes sent by Pope Francis, who has been a vocal advocate for action to prevent dangerous climate change, and jogging shoes from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

One activist, dressed in white as an angel with large wings, held a sign saying “coal kills”. About 10,000 people joined arms to form a human chain through Paris along the 3-km (2-mile) route of the banned march, organizers said.

ARRESTS IN PARIS

French police detained scores of protesters after violent clashes in central Paris on Nov. 29 though, a day before the official start of conference that aims to tackle global warming.

Riot police used tear gas to disperse about 200 protesters, some of them masked, who responded by hurling rocks and even candles. French President Francois Hollande accused the violent protesters of dishonoring the memory of the dead.

The U.N. climate change conference is taking place at Le Bourget just outside Paris. Initial talks among negotiators began on Nov. 29.

PROTESTS AROUND THE WORLD

More than 2,000 events were held in cities including London, Sao Paulo, New York and Asuncion, Paraguay, on the eve of the Paris summit which runs from Nov. 30-Dec. 11 and will be attended by about 150 heads of government.

About 683,000 people attended the rallies around the world, said Sam Barrat, a spokesman for Avaaz, one of the organizers.

“And this was done even without Paris,” after the March there was banned, he said,

Around the world, activists marched, dressed as polar bears or penguins at risk from melting ice, or chanted slogans such as “climate justice”.

Organizers said that 570,000 people so far had taken part in rallies worldwide and that they expected demonstrations including in Ottawa and Mexico City later in the day to push the count above 600,000.

“These are the biggest set of global marches in history,” said Sam Barratt at Avaaz.

There was no independent verification of the numbers, although none of the individual marches rivaled one in New York last year that drew an estimated 310,000 people.

In Sydney, about 45,000 people are estimated to have marched through the central business district toward the Opera House. Protesters held placards reading: “There is no Planet B,” and “Say no to burning national forests for electricity”.

In London, organizers said 50,000 marchers were joined by fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, actress Emma Thompson and opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who said the turnout was especially impressive for a wet November Sunday.

In New York, hundreds of people, many of them holding signs calling for aggressive measures to stop global warming, marched around the perimeter of New York City Hall in lower Manhattan.

OBAMA AND XI JINPING IN PARIS

U.S. President Barack Obama and China’s Xi Jinping will be among the leaders attending the start of the summit, which organizers hope will produce a legally binding agreement to commit both rich and developing nations to curbing emissions of greenhouse gases, blamed for warming the planet, beyond 2020.

Hopes are high that the Paris summit will not fail like the previous such meeting six years ago in Copenhagen.

Popular and political momentum for tougher action on carbon emissions has accelerated in recent years, with 2015 set to be the warmest on record. Activists are seeking to combat everything from Beijing’s smoggy skies to Canada’s Keystone oil pipeline.

Saiba Suso, a 26-year-old demonstrator in Paris, said the poor were most at risk: “We are paying the price and we are not the cause. The industrialized countries owe us a lot.”

Still, all sides say pledges made in Paris will be insufficient to limit a rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, widely viewed as a threshold for dangerous changes in the planet’s climate system.

Ron Kind urges House vote on rail safety bill | 3rd derailment in Midwest in 3 days

U.S. Rep. Ron Kind on Nov. 9 urged the House leadership to immediately bring his rail safety legislation to a floor for a vote.

Kind’s call comes after two train derailments in Wisconsin over the weekend and one in Des Moines on Nov. 9.

“The derailments this weekend in Alma and Watertown showed once again the negative impact increased rail traffic is having on our communities and environment. Fortunately, no injuries were reported at either derailment, but dozens of people were forced to temporarily evacuate their homes and nearly 20,000 gallons of ethanol spilled into the Mississippi River,” the Democratic congressman said in a statement to the press. “The increase in rail traffic shows no signs of stopping, which is why we must take immediate action to prevent future derailments. I am calling on House leadership to hold a vote on my legislation which will provide for stronger rail safety standards and will increase oversight.” 

On Nov. 9, crews in Wisconsin were working to clear freight cars from rail tracks and contain spilled crude oil and chemicals after derailments in the state.

A Canadian Pacific Railway train loaded with crude oil derailed in Watertown on Nov. 8. One car spilled hundreds of gallons of crude oil and caused the evacuation of a neighborhood. 

On Nov. 7, 25 BNSF train cars including tankers derailed, spilling as much as 20,000 gallons of ethanol from five tankers along the shores on the Mississippi River near Alma in western Wisconsin, according to the AP.

BNSF said railroad crews stopped the leaks from five tanker cars and placed containment booms along the shoreline.

Then, on Nov. 9, nearly two dozen cars derailed when a coal train hit a road grader.

Accidents involving shipments of hazardous fuels by rail have spiked over the past decade, corresponding with a sharp rise in the production of ethanol from the Midwest and oil from the Bakken crude region of North Dakota and Montana.

At least 26 oil trains and 11 ethanol trains have been involved in major fires, derailments or spills during the past decade in the U.S. and Canada, according to an Associated Press tally from data kept by transportation agencies and safety investigators from the two nations.

The most devastating, in July 2013, killed 47 people and destroyed much of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, when an unmanned, out-of-control train hauling Bakken oil crashed and exploded in the city’s downtown.

The Crude-by-Rail Safety Act sponsored by Kind would prohibit the use of unsafe DOT-111 tank cars, such as the ones involved in the Alma derailment, according to Kind’s office.

 

Greenpeace report: 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 possible

Greenpeace has released its 2015 Energy [R]evolution report, which finds that a global phase out of fossil fuels and shift towards 100 percent renewable energy is possible by 2050.

The analysis, researched in collaboration with the German Aerospace Centre, shows that the transition to renewables would create jobs and be cost competitive. The necessary investment in clean energy would be more than covered by future savings in fuel costs.

“The phase out of fossil fuels and transition to renewable energy is not only needed, but can be achieved globally by mid-century,” said Greenpeace USA climate and energy campaign director Kelly Mitchell. “In the United States, we must prioritize keeping coal, oil and gas in the ground while accelerating the transition to clean energy like wind and solar. Doing so would both create new jobs and ensure a healthier planet for future generations.”

In December, world leaders will gather at the UN climate summit in Paris with an opportunity to take the necessary steps to fight climate change by accelerating the transformation of the world’s energy sector.

Globally, the average additional investment needed in renewables is roughly $1 trillion a year until 2050. Because renewables don’t require fuel, the savings over the same period would be $1.07 trillion a year, which more than covers the costs of the required investment.

The report finds that the solar PV industry could employ 9.7 million people by 2030. In the United States, there are already twice as many solar workers as coal miners.

Previous Greenpeace Energy [R]evolution reports have accurately predicted the potential and market growth of renewable energy.

The US-based Meister Consultants Group concluded earlier this year that Greenpeace forecasts were more accurate than those of other established groups, including the International Energy Agency, Goldman Sachs and the US Department of Energy.

“We must not let the fossil fuel industry’s lobbying stand in the way of a switch to renewable energy, the most effective and fairest way to deliver a clean and safe energy future,” said Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo. “I urge all those who say ‘it can’t be done’ to read this report and recognize that it can be done and must be done for the benefit of people around the world.”

Within 15 years, renewables’ share of electricity could triple from 21 percent to 64 percent, which would ensure almost two-thirds of global electricity supply is delivered from clean energy. Despite the rapid development of countries like Brazil, China and India, CO2 emissions could fall from the current 30 gigatonnes a year to 20 gigatonnes by 2030.

“The solar and wind industries have come of age, and are now cost competitive with coal,” said Greenpeace’s Sven Teske, the lead author of the report. “It is very likely they will overtake the coal industry in terms of jobs and energy supplied within the next decade. It’s the responsibility of the fossil fuel industry to prepare for these changes in the labor market and make provisions. Every dollar invested in new fossil fuel projects is high risk capital which could end up as stranded investment.”

Naidoo concluded: “Following this Greenpeace scenario, the Paris climate agreement must deliver a long term vision for phasing out coal, oil, gas and nuclear energy by mid-century, reaching the goal of 100% renewables with energy access for all.”

On the Web …

Find the report at http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/publications/Campaign-reports/Climate-Reports/Energy-Revolution-2015/ 

Michigan-Wisconsin ferry to resume operations

A coal-fired passenger ferry is set to return to service on Lake Michigan after undergoing a makeover to meet terms of a deal with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The Ludington Daily News  reports the SS Badger is expected to sail on May 15 from Ludington, Michigan, to Manitowoc, Wisconsin. It’ll have a new ash retention system as part of a requirement to stop discharging ash into Lake Michigan.

Improvements made to the ship by its operator, Lake Michigan Carferry, have cost an estimated $2.4 million over the last two years.

The 410-foot ferry launched in 1952 and can carry 600 passengers and 180 vehicles. It’s the last coal-fired steamship operating on the Great Lakes.

On the web …

https://www.ssbadger.com.

Republicans vow to undo Obama’s environmental progress

President Barack Obama’s determined efforts to combat global warming face their biggest trial yet as Republicans take full control of Congress this week. The GOP vows to move fast and forcefully to roll back his environmental rules and force his hand on energy development.

The GOP’s first order of business: the Keystone XL pipeline. The Republican-led House has repeatedly passed legislation to approve the pipeline, which would carry tar sands oil from Canada deep into the United States. The bills died in the Senate when Democrats were in control, but that will change Wednesday when a Republican-led Senate committee holds a Keystone hearing.

“The president is going to see the Keystone XL pipeline on his desk and it’s going to be a bellwether decision by the president whether to go with jobs and the economy,” said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming.

Success for Republicans on the climate front would jeopardize a key component of Obama’s legacy. And the ramifications would likely ricochet far beyond the United States.

Later this year, nations are supposed to sign a major global climate treaty in Paris. Aggressive action by the U.S. under Obama has upped the pressure on other governments to get serious about climate change, too. But if Obama can’t make good on his commitments at home, it’s unclear whether poorer nations will still feel compelled to act.

“The American government has been responsible for sending very strong political and economic signals with what they have announced so far,” former Mexican President Felipe Calderon, now a global climate leader, said in an Associated Press interview. “I know that there is a risk that those will be overcome by the new political reality in the U.S.”

Obama has made clear he will use his veto power if Republicans succeed in getting hostile bills to his desk — especially on climate change. “I’m going to defend gains that we’ve made on environment and clean air and clean water,” he has said.

And Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, says the Republicans aren’t likely to overturn his veto. That would require a number of Democrats to vote against the president.

“There’s reason to be concerned, but I don’t think there’s reason to be panicked,” Schatz said.

By design, Obama’s biggest steps on climate rely on existing laws and don’t explicitly require Congress to act. But Republicans can try to undercut them before they take effect. Republicans argue that Obama’s coal plant emissions limits, for example, would devastate local economies and hamper job-creation.

These are some of the most likely ways the GOP will try to stop Obama on climate change, as described by Republican leadership aides:

• After Wednesday’s hearing on Keystone, GOP senators plan to work on the bill’s details on Thursday and then start debating the legislation next week. The Senate could vote soon after Obama’s Jan. 20 State of the Union address. A separate House vote on Keystone could come as early as this week.

That makes Keystone likely to be one of the first bills to hit Obama’s desk in 2015. White House aides decline to say how they might respond until they see the final GOP bill. But in his most recent news conference, Obama spoke at length about how Keystone would basically save money for Canadian energy producers, with negligible effects for U.S. gasoline prices or American jobs.

• Republicans aim to pass legislation forcing Obama to certify — before his regulations on power plants take effect — that they won’t drive up power prices or eliminate jobs. Attaching that requirement to a broader spending bill would make it harder for Obama to veto without jeopardizing other government spending.

In the “defund” approach, Republicans could pass bills prohibiting the government from spending any money to implement his EPA regulations. Meanwhile, states and other groups are pursuing litigation in the courts challenging the administration’s authority to proceed without Congress.

• The GOP could try to block Environmental Protection Agency regulations directly. The Congressional Review Act enables such resolutions to pass the Senate with a simple majority vote, meaning Democrats couldn’t filibuster, once the regulations became final. That’s scheduled to happen this year for Obama’s carbon dioxide rule, which aims to cut power plant emissions nearly a third from 2005 levels.

• Lawmakers could refuse to give Obama the $3 billion he has already pledged on the country’s behalf to a global fund to help poorer nations address climate change. Obama hasn’t yet asked Congress for any money to fulfill that pledge. The White House says the administration will make its first request in its budget plan for fiscal year 2016, which begins Oct. 1.

• Republicans are likely to send Obama bills aimed at spurring energy development in the U.S., such as promoting drilling on federal lands or making it easier to export gas and oil. Many of these bills have previously passed the House and are teed up for quick passage by the new Congress.

Associated Press writer Donna Cassata contributed to this report.

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Not in my backyard: US sending dirty coal abroad

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.

House passes bill to block Obama’s climate plan

Aiming at the heart of President Barack Obama’s strategy for fighting climate change, the Republican-controlled House voted on March 6  to block the administration’s plan to limit carbon pollution from new power plants.

The bill targets Obama’s proposal for the Environmental Protection Agency to set the first national limits on heat-trapping carbon pollution from future power plants. It’s part of the GOP’s election-year strategy to fight back against what Republicans call a “war on coal” by the Obama administration.

The bill passed by a 229-183 vote. Ten Democrats, mostly from coal-producing states or the South, joined Republicans in support of it.

A similar measure is pending in the Senate but faces a more difficult path.

“The Obama administration clearly wants to use its regulatory agenda to end coal-fired power generation in this country, but that is a pipe dream,” said Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, noting that coal provides nearly 40 percent of the nation’s electricity.

Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., called the EPA proposal “one of the most extreme regulations of the Obama administration. He said the proposed limits on carbon emissions would “make it impossible to build a new coal-fired power plant in America.”

As a practical matter, no new coal plants are currently being considered because of competition from cheap natural gas. But Whitfield and other Republicans argue that could change if natural gas prices keep rising. In that case, utility companies should be able to “go out and build a coal-powered plant with reasonable regulations,” said Whitfield, who chairs the House subcommittee on energy and power.

The Whitfield-sponsored House bill requires EPA to set carbon emissions standards based on technology that has been in use for at least a year. Republicans and some coal-state Democrats say the EPA rule is based on carbon-capturing technology that doesn’t currently exist.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., denounced the legislation as “a science-denial bill” that would strip the EPA of its ability to block carbon pollution. He and other Democrats called the bill a blatant attempt to thwart the EPA and vilify the Obama administration in an election year.

The White House has threatened to veto, saying the bill would “undermine public health protections of the Clean Air Act and stop U.S. progress in cutting dangerous carbon pollution from power plants.” Power plants account for about one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and other officials have said the proposed rule – the first of two major regulations aimed at limiting carbon pollution from power plants – is based on carbon reduction methods that are “technically feasible” and under development in at least four sites. The rule affecting future plants is a prelude to a more ambitious plan, expected later this year, to curb carbon pollution from existing power plants.

“We looked at the data available. We looked at the technologies,” McCarthy told the Senate Environment Committee in January. “We made a determination that (carbon capture and storage technology) was the best system for emission reductions for coal facilities moving forward, because it was technically feasible and it would lead to significant emission reductions.”

Whitfield and other critics dispute that, saying carbon capture technology is years away from being commercially viable.

A Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., would require the EPA to set standards on based on commercially available technology.

Manchin’s approach has drawn support from other Democrats who represent energy-producing states, including Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. Landrieu faces a tough re-election fight in a state where both Obama and the EPA are unpopular.

A spokesman for Manchin said Thursday that the senator plans to meet with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other Democrats to discuss a path forward, but did not offer a timetable.

A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., expressed doubts that Manchin’s bill will get a vote in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

“If the president doesn’t want (the bill), Harry Reid is going to block it, even if it is good for jobs and even it’s good for Kentucky,” said McConnell spokesman Don Stewart.

Republicans have accused the EPA of dragging its feet on the power plant rule so it won’t become final until after the 2014 midterm elections.

EPA Administrator McCarthy announced the proposal in September, but the measure was not printed in the Federal Register until January. The delay means the rule is unlikely to be completed until next year. A public comment period on the rule was supposed to expire next week, but has been extended until May 9.

Kerry: No rush to decide on Keystone XL pipeline

Secretary of State John Kerry says the United States will not be rushed into making a decision on the long-delayed Keystone XL pipeline, brushing aside pressure from Canada.

At a recent joint appearance with Canada’s foreign affairs minister, John Baird, Kerry said he has not received a crucial environmental report on the $7 billion pipeline, which would carry oil from western Canada to refineries in Texas.

“My hope is that before long, that analysis will be available, and then my work begins,” Kerry said, referring to a recommendation he is expected to make on whether the pipeline is in the U.S. national interest. The State Department has jurisdiction over the pipeline because it crosses an international border.

Kerry, who has rarely spoken about the pipeline since taking office a year ago, said “a lot of questions” were raised about the project in a lengthy public comment period the State Department conducted. “Those comments have necessitated appropriate answers,” he said.

“I can promise our friends in Canada that all the appropriate effort is being put into trying to get this done effectively and rapidly,” Kerry added.

Kerry’s comments came as Baird, his counterpart in Canada, concluded a three-day visit to Washington in which he repeatedly urged U.S. officials to decide quickly on the pipeline, which was first proposed by Calgary-based TransCanada in 2008.

“If there’s one message I’m going to be promoting on this trip, it’s this: the time for Keystone is now. I’ll go further — the time for a decision on Keystone is now, even if it’s not the right one,” Baird told a U.S. Chamber of Commerce luncheon. “We can’t continue in this state of limbo.”

The pipeline plan has become a flashpoint in the U.S. debate over climate change. Environmental groups have pressured President Barack Obama to reject the pipeline, saying it would carry “dirty oil” derived from tar sands and exacerbate global warming. They also worry about a spill.

Lawmakers from oil-producing states, as well as business and labor groups, have urged Obama to approve the pipeline as a source of much-needed jobs and a step toward North American energy independence.

Speaking across the street from the White House, Baird said he expects the State Department review, known as an environmental impact statement, to be released soon after Obama’s Jan. 28 State of the Union address, with a final decision after that.

The renewed lobbying on the pipeline comes as TransCanada is poised to begin shipping oil from the pipeline’s southern leg next week. A 485-mile segment from Cushing, Oklahoma, to the Houston region is slated to begin shipping oil on Wednesday.

The $2.3 billion southern leg does not require State Department approval because it does not cross a U.S. border. The northern segment would run 1,179 miles (1,897 kilometers) from Alberta, Canada, to Steele City, Nebraska. The pipeline would connect to Cushing through an existing, 298-mile spur.

A spokesman for TransCanada said the company believes U.S. officials have “more than enough information” to approve Keystone XL.

“Our customers continue to need the product we will deliver, (the pipeline) continues to receive extremely strong support from Republicans and Democrats in public opinion polls, and more than 9,000 American construction workers are standing by to build this important piece of modern energy infrastructure,” said Shawn Howard, a TransCanada spokesman.

Republicans, industry vow to fight Obama’s climate change plan

Republican lawmakers and industry groups are vowing to fight President Barack Obama’s climate change plan and its first-ever emission limits on new power plants. But they’re finding their options are limited – at least in the short term.

Although the emission rules are just one component of Obama’s plan, critics are looking for an early win to show they have the fortitude to fend off other sweeping actions Obama plans to take, like pollution standards for existing plants.

Environmental Protection Agency officials say they’ve spent tremendous energy examining potential pitfalls and ensuring the rule holds up to scrutiny.

“Our best defense is to do it right,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said earlier this week. “We think that it will stand the test of time.”

The rules would require new coal-fired power plants to install expensive technology to capture carbon dioxide. No U.S. plant has done that, largely due to the cost. Opponents say that makes the rule ripe for challenges.

LEGISLATIVE

For Obama, the upside to using his regulatory powers is that no vote from Congress is needed. But if lawmakers don’t like a regulation, they can pass a resolution to block it. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, whose state of Kentucky is a major coal producer, says he’ll do just that.

The Congressional Review Act provides for expedited Senate consideration with a simple majority vote. And the Republican-controlled House would have little difficulty passing it.

Still, it’s incredibly tough to do. Since the act was established in 1996, it’s only been used successfully once.

Even if Republicans could muscle the resolution through both chambers, it’s nearly impossible they could override Obama’s certain veto.

Lawmakers could use amendments to other bills to undercut the regulation, or try to starve the EPA of funds. But Democrats who control the Senate would work to block those moves.

LEGAL

The Supreme Court has already ruled the EPA has authority, under the Clean Air Act, to regulate greenhouse gases. But that doesn’t mean the EPA won’t get sued.

“The chances for legal action are 100 percent,” said Jeffrey Holmstead, the EPA’s former air and radiation chief under President George W. Bush.

A large number of coal-friendly states are expected to join trade groups in suing. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which represents the coal industry, alluded to legal action when it accused Obama of effectively banning new coal plants. “It’s almost certain the courts will have to settle this issue,” said ACCCE President Mike Duncan.

Opponents say the rule’s key vulnerability is a Clean Air Act provision requiring the EPA standard to reflect the best emissions reduction technology that’s been “adequately demonstrated.” The EPA says four plants under development plan to deploy the technology. Critics say that’s hardly proof it’s commercially available or economically viable.

Still, lawsuits won’t be immediate. Opponents must wait until the EPA finalizes the rule before they can sue – a process that will take months.

POLITICAL

If all else fails, Republicans can try to bludgeon Democrats with the issue in the 2014 elections. After all, a slew of Democrats who backed cap-and-trade emissions legislation lost their seats in 2010, helping Republicans seize the House.

If Republicans strengthened their House majority and reclaimed the Senate, they’d be better positioned to obstruct Obama on this and other elements of his climate plan.

Many of the most competitive Senate races -like West Virginia, Kentucky and Louisiana – are in key energy-producing states where the issue could resonate deeply.

Not all Democrats support Obama’s plan, and the fact that lawmakers didn’t have to vote on the regulation may help. But National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Andrea Bozek said it’s up to Democrats to distance themselves from their president.

“It’s their responsibility to explain it,” Bozek said. “That D next to their name allows us to highlight their support for Obama’s policies that are hurting jobs in their district.”