Coal Exports and Carbon Consequences

More pollution than 27 million people's gasoline.
This post is part of the research project: Northwest Coal & Oil Exports

There’s a heated controversy over plans for Washington state ports to ship large volumes of coal to China. In fact, last week we learned that the coal companies had been lying to the small community of Longview, Washington.

In a proposal put forward to county commissioners and state officials, the company outlined plans for an export terminal that would handle around 5 million tons of coal annually. That’s a lot of coal. It raised eyebrows—and some meaningful opposition—in the town. And while it’s true that most of the concern in Longview wasn’t about carbon emissions, it’s worth taking a moment to assess the scale of the climate consequences.

When burned, 5 million tons of coal will release as much climate-changing carbon pollution as all the gasoline burned in a year by 2.6 million residents of Washington. For visual types, here’s a depiction:

coal_5 tons

Yet it turns out that 5 million tons of coal isn’t even half the story.

A legal appeal found internal company documents showing that the company was actually planning something much, much larger. In fact, company officials pretty clearly were aiming to build a huge 20 million ton export facility.

When burned, 20 million tons of coal will release as much climate-changing carbon pollution as all the gasoline burned in a year by 9.4 million residents of Washington and Oregon. Once again, for visual types:  coal_20 tons

And that’s not the half of it. Internal memos now reveal that company officials were secretly discussing plans for a 60 million ton mega-export facility—the largest in the US—designed to move staggering volumes of Rocky Mountain coal to Asian markets, particularly China.

It’s genuinely hard to grasp just how much pollution that kind of coal would cause. For some context, when burned, 60 million tons of coal will release as much climate-changing carbon pollution as all the gasoline burned in a year by 27 million residents of a huge swath of the western United States. Like so:

coal_60 tons

It’s not exactly small potatoes. Exporting Powder River Basin coal to China from the West Coast may very well be the single biggest climate catastrophe that’s unfolding right now. But more on all that later.


Notes:My calculations assume that Powder River Basin coal generates 8,500 BTUs per pound, and that 1 million BTUs produces 212.7 pounds of CO2. Gasoline consumption refers to “motor gasoline” and comes from the US Energy Information Administration’s State Energy Data System, here, using 2008 figures. My calculations use the official carbon dioxide coefficients from the Department of Energy, here. For calculating and attributing gasoline carbon emissions, I used 2009 county population figures from the US Census Bureau, and I assumed that each county’s share of total state gasoline emissions are exactly proportional to its share of the state’s total population.

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  1. Bryan says:

    This is how ignorant these articles are, first and foremost if people really think that stopping coal from being exported out of Longview is going to stop China, Japan, Korea and Indonesia from burning coal, THEY ARE STILL going to burn coal.. It’s just what kind of coal are they going to burn, the PRB coal is cleaner burning coal. I can’t believe that this is such a issue, the extreme right wants to control what we mine and export, also control what and how good of jobs we have. The environmental groups have chased all the industry out of this country and wonder why there are no jobs. There is a balance people, and its not controling what private companies can export, if the laws are followed then quit moving the goal poles. Even if the company isn’t completely honest about how much they’re planning on shipping, its they’re property if they want to ship 100mil tons that’s up to them.. Let’s move on, ship the coal create the jobs and take the tax revenue…

  2. Eric de Place says:

    Bryan,There are a number of misconceptions that I hope to clear up in subsequent writing on the topic. For one, there’s every reason to believe that shipping PRB coal will increase (not offset) the amount of coal burned, encouraging reliance on a very dirty fuel rather than on cleaner technologies. For another, the number of jobs created by the export terminal is incredibly small—like 20.

  3. Don says:

    Eric,You are thorough researcher, so I commend to you the James Fallows piece in the recent Atlantic Monthly ( As you know Fallows is a very thorough journalist as well and you’ll gain a better context for the reality that withholding a few million tons of coal from Asia will have no effect whatsoever on how much coal is burned. You’ll also see that the serious people who Fallows interviewed advocate an “engagement” policy rather than isolation when it comes to the most important question: how will the coal be burned? China, for instance, is far ahead of the rest of the world on developments to sequester CO2 and generally move toward what President Obama says should be a part of our energy portfolio: (dare I say) clean coal.Keep working on your research.

  4. PSJones says:

    “Clean coal” development is proceeding as wello as “clean fusion”. It’s a marketing farce for people who would like to believe that you can make bad things go away – with technology! New and improved! Next: sequestration.We’d be better off, domesticallty, creating a real solution for long-term storage of nuclear waste. In the meantime, strip-mining our carbon-producing energy resources helps only the mega-corporations.

  5. juliem says:

    The argument “If we don’t do it, someone else will” is a justification that moves us further away from the issue. While there is no such thing as “clean coal”, the Chinese government has been researching ways to sequester the carbon released through coal liquification and gasification techniques in a process called carbon capture and storage (CCS). While the process is expensive, it will help the government clean up its image while moving away from oil dependence, so we can at least hope they will be willing to foot the bill to make things a little cleaner. It seems there are still a lot of unanswered questions regarding the status of the CCS projects as well as the efficiency of the process in general. The fact is, this is a complicated problem. I appreciate the information and look forward to hearing how the story unfolds.

  6. Jim Howell says:

    Tax the carbon dioxide that will be emitted into the atmosphere from fossil sources when they are burned and the problem goes away.A tax of a penny a pound of CO2 spewed into the atmosphere would be $44 a ton of coal, $.20 a gallon of gasoline and a $1.20 for 1,000 CF of natural gas.The added cost of coal would make it uneconomical to ship to China and think of what the revenue from this tax could buy – renewable energy, public transit and high-speed rail.

  7. Bryan says:

    Whom ever made the comment that there will only be twenty jobs created is so wrong. Just at the two proposed terminals there would be over 300 jobs, not including the construction jobs, (over a thousand). As many new mining jobs, and the railroads at least 200-300 additional jobs. And those aren’t $12 an our jobs, those are jobs that will pay 70,000+ a year. That’s better than most of the new jobs that have been created the last two and a half years!! Also, I take issue that this article stresses that IF we export PRB or Utah/Colorado coal these maps show this will happen… Question, so none of this is going to happen if we DON’T export the coal?? Please tell me you don’t really believe that!! There isn’t anything that anyone can do with how much coal the Asian countries burn, nothing! But we can ship them a lower emission burn coal. It’s funny to me there was so little talk about Asia burning coal till exporting our coal that it became an issue, it’s not any big an issue today than it was in November when Cowlitz County gave we’re approval, build it, like I said before, take the tax revenue create the jobs and move on!!!

  8. Bob Ferris says:

    To the person above mentioning the James Fallows piece. The focus of the piece—and this is what the proponents of Cherry Point are handing out—is that we should work with China to learn from their efforts to reduce carbon emission. While the piece is very optimistic it is also talking about a preferred future and not a realized present. The US is still burning coal cleaner than China and we are 20% less dependent upon coal as a power source. And no where in this long article does Mr. Fallow—even though he had ample opportunity—include among his recommendations that we should sell coal to China. No where is this long article on coal and China is that potential transaction mentioned.

  9. Jim W. says:

    My concern is more with the notion of creating yet another natural resource pipeline out of the U.S. We export logs to mills in Japan and Korea, and look what that did to our timber industry, eliminating the demand for mills (Spotted owls didn’t do that. Greedy timber owners did that). So now, we’re going to destroy large swaths of Wyoming to send raw coal to China. If we’re determined to mine it, let’s use it here and work on sequestration and CO2 “cleansing” right here in America, with American researchers. Think about it, we’ve become China’s dumping ground for excess production and now they’re going to rape our natural landscape to power their factory cities. Where are all those Rotary Club patriots now? This should be stopped for patriotic reasons as well as environmental and economic reasons. We can manage the use of that coal resource a lot better right here in America,and create a lot more jobs and much needed energy by keeping that coal right here in the U.S.

  10. Bryan says:

    Now if someone is serious about the post they just put up think about what you just said and it is obvious that you don’t understand history in Washington and Oregon. If you really think that the spotted owl didn’t have anything to do with the timber industries demise I want what your smoking!! The environmentalist got the feds to stop logging not only on state and fed land but THOUSANDS acres of private land.. If memory serves me correctly between the two states there is something like 8mil acres that still can’t be logged on. Both states relied on timber sales for the general fund balancing there budgets and most of all, that’s what payer for the schools in both states. I’m pretty sure I don’t need to tell up what the budgets have been like the last nearly twenty years now, and the schools have suffered greatly. What does this have to do about coal?? Everything. Environmentalist have destroyed at least some part of every industry in this country the last thirty years, why do you think companies have moved overseas? We’ve got a huge trade deficit with China, got a state that is about broke, and a economy that’s not producing jobs. As I have mentioned in my above post, there will be a hell of a lot of tax revenue, more than twenty or seventy jobs and we would obviously be reducing the trade deficit. Not to mention the the site is a superfund site that Milliniom has said they’d clean up. So, I’ve produced reasons why this should be done over my three posts, someone give me reasons why NOT! I don’t want to hear cause coal is dirty, why? Cause none of you people have had a problem with Asian countries burning coal over the last fifty years, I don’t want to hear “we are exporting an resources”, hmmm, no kidding we have been doing that for over two hundred years!! So honestly what is left?? Nothing..

  11. civiletti says:

    Nice data treatment, Eric. Folks who want to invoke coming clean coal technology should consider the scale of activity that would be required to make it reality and not just industry hype. The energy in coal is almost completely in the form of elemental carbon. Freeing coal’s energy without releasing huge amounts of CO2 is a very difficult undertaking. It may never happen on an industrial scale, because of expense.To Bryan: what you do not want to hear is your own problem with little relevance to what concerns are valid. You argue like a 10 year old.

  12. Bryan says:

    What I don’t want to hear is my own problem? And valid points? And I argue like a ten year old… Interesting. First I don’t have any problem with what any of the points made on this forum, second, valid points, there really hasn’t been any made. That’s why the state and Millenium started negotiations Wednesday cause none of these appeals have a leg to stand on. And as usual, instead of answering the questions I brought up, some people resort to name calling.. Is it a wonder why this country is as divided as it is!! So say what you want but when you see one of those loaded coal trains that is either going to Westshore or Prince Rupert, or in the near future Longview, look close in the locomotive, it maybe me…

  13. Barry says:

    China produces only $450 per tCO2 while India manages to produce $700 and Brazil produces $2,400.Shipping thermal coal into an economy like China’s is a climate disaster for everyone…and a total squandering of a resource. If China would at least clean up their economy to India’s level they would cut their climate pollution by 38%. If they created an economy as clean as Brazil’s they would cut their climate pollution by 80%. Until they do, the rest of the world is shooting itself in the foot to let Chinese economy suck the coal out of global deposits to burn in such a wasteful manner. (all data from US EIA CO2/GDP stats)

  14. Toby says:

    Bryan—You’re right that name-calling is inappropriate. On the other hand, the criticisms of your lack of logic are well taken. E.g., “Environmentalist have destroyed at least some part of every industry in this country the last thirty years” is a ludicrous statement. Dig up Ernie Niemi’s “The Sky Did Not Fall” for a good analysis of the economic consequences of the spotted owl wars. The corporations will move to where they can make the most money. If the Powder River coal is left in the ground, there will be that much less carbon put into the atmosphere. The essential fact is that the era of cheap energy is over, and Peak Oil (and everything else) was not caused by the environmentalists. For an excellent summary of the energy reality we are now in I recommend SEARCHING FOR A MIRACLENet Energy Limits and the Fate of Industrial Societyby Richard HeinbergForeword by Jerry ManderA Joint Project of the International Forum on Globalization and the Post Carbon Institute. [ False Solution Series #4 ]September 2009

  15. Bryan says:

    Toby I appropriate your agreement on the name calling. Not that this is going to surprise you but I back what I say when I said the environmental movement has had they’re hands in destroying industry in this country. Toby, my issue with what you want me to read is of course slanted toward the environmentalist. Anyone can write what they want, turn numbers anyway you want. But, I worked in timber industry right out of high school and watched what happened when the spotted owl issue, I was unemployed, and so was ruffy another 25,000 people in Washington, and those counties that were the hardest hit still have not recovered 25 years later. I have still not got an answer to the questions I ask. I am sure there is a middle ground, my only point over the last week is that these groups only want things they’re way and that way only, and not everyone believes that…

  16. civiletti says:

    Bryan, your writing requires so much interpretation, it is difficult to make specific replies. To your desire for “middle ground”, here is an allegory:A corporate executive wanted to spill ten gallons of gasoline on the floor of a classroom and ignite it. The classroom teacher objected that spilling gasoline on the floor and igniting it would be dangerously destructive. The exec suggested a middle ground. He would pour only five gallons of gasoline on the floor before dropping the match. The teacher and students wrestled the intruder to the ground, took away his gas can and sent him off to the county lockup.Of course, perhaps you don’t want to hear that.

  17. Bryan says:

    Civiletti,I’m sorry that my questions that I ask are that hard to answer, and I find your response a little sarcastic. So, I’ll ask the questions easier. Do you use electricity? If yes why, its probably coming from a coal fired plant. Second question, do you use paper, toilet paper, live in a wood built house? If yes why, it all came from a tree didn’t it?? And do drive a car use public transportation or ride a bike? Why the steel was made some way. Yes, this is sarcastic I do apologise, but my point is its a little hypocritical to say no no no to all these industries but want be to use all of these things that come from the places the environmental movement hates the most…

  18. civiletti says:

    Actually, I pay a premium for 100% renewable electricity. But, yes, I use products made with fossil fuel. That does not mean I need to ignore the destructiveness of current energy sources. Indeed, it increases my responsibility in moving away from destructive, non-sustainable practices. The hypocrisy would be in denying reality and refusing to work toward a sustainable future. That starts with things that are easy, such as household recycling, and things that are critical, such as ending the use of coal to reduce greenhouse gas emission.There are some whose attitudes on environmental protection are highly emotional and not often rational, but most environmentalists I know are practical and coolly quantitative in their analysis. They care about economy, but they want to preserve a biosphere in which to carry on that economy.I don’t want to hear that we cannot do that, okay?

  19. Bryan says:

    I can agree with what you’ve said civiletti, I truly do believe there is a balance, that’s what I’d hope for at least. I don’t believe in its this way (my way or no way), I don’t think its mature or responsible. I know that I’ve come across brash and I do or I have apologised. Whatever I say here isn’t to try to change anyones mind, but to let people know there are still bluecollar people that care about our jobs and how these this effect our livelihood.

  20. civiletti says:

    We all should be concerned about the livelihood of people affected by environmental protection. Rather than building projects that waste resources, or continuing activities that are grossly destructive in the name of creating or maintaining jobs, we should make investment in infrastructure and economy that promotes sustainability. People who need jobs and people who need a functioning biosphere are the same people.

  21. jaydog says:

    I have to agree with what has been said on this comment chain about creating jobs. There is this incredible push in our country to ‘create jobs’ and yet the large corporations are doing just the opposite – outsourcing everything they can. To India, and China – where jobs are cheap.And yet people who believe that new jobs in coal mining and export, timber, and drilling for oil will revitalize this country are sorely mistaken. Our country is completely dependent on cheap foreign exports from China, and we just keep shooting up our veins with this useless junk. Our country has become fat and stupid – taking money that used to go towards our future (ie. education) and putting it toward reality TV and subsidizing high fructose corn syrup, which is driving up our medical costs and killing our population.We do not need to export our natural resources to China. We should be taking jobs back from China, relying more on our own strengths, and stop policing the world. If we do not, our beloved country will fall from the top like so many other empires…

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