Aerial view of a coal mine near Gillette, Wyoming. Proposed export terminals in Washington and Oregon would export millions of tons of coal each year to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and elsewhere. Photo: Nati Harnik / AP

By David J. Unger
20 June 2013

(Christian Science Monitor) – No country emits more carbon dioxide than China, but at least some of that heat-trapping gas gets its start in Appalachian mines.

With cleaner-burning natural gas cutting into the their market in the United States, coal companies have found eager customers in the East, fueling urbanizing economies in Asia with cheap steelmaking coal. Coal's future in the US may have dimmed over recent years, but exports are hitting record highs.

It's why coal export terminals are emerging as a flash point in the fight against climate change. Don't be surprised if instead of reading about the Keystone XL pipeline, you are soon inundated with polarizing reports on Millennium Bulk Terminals-Longview, the Gateway Pacific Terminal, and the Morrow Pacific Project.

Those are three proposals for export terminals in Washington and Oregon that would export millions of tons of coal each year to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and elsewhere.

Backers of the proposal point to the economic benefits of creating thousands of jobs in areas suffering from unemployment rates above the national average. For environmentalists, the terminals mean literally adding fuel to the fire when it comes to the issue of rising greenhouse gas emissions.

"Unless we can stop these coal terminals from being built and keep our coal in the ground where it belongs, Washington state coal exports will be responsible for hastening the advance of climate change here at home and around the world," Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn said in testimony before a House subcommittee Tuesday on fossil fuel exports.

Backers of the terminals scored a victory during Tuesday's hearing when Army Corps of Engineers acting regulatory chief Jennifer Moyer told the subcommittee that the climate change impacts of burning coal abroad would not factor into the Corps' environmental review of the proposals. 

"[T]he possible future shipment of coal by oceangoing vessels across the Pacific Ocean beyond the limits of US navigable waters, and the possible future off-loading, distribution, and burning of coal in Asia are attenuated and far removed from the activities regulated by the Corps at any of the three shipping facilities," Ms. Moyer said in prepared testimony. "Commercial markets drive the need for and destination of coal which could change regardless of the Corps decision regarding the proposed activities in waters within our jurisdiction."

The US exported 13.6 million tons of coal in March 2013, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). That's a new monthly record. China was the No. 1 destination for that coal, followed by the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, South Korea, and Brazil. [more]

Record US coal exports fuel climate change debate

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