Coal Exports Are Bigger Threat Than Tar Sands Pipeline

A carbon comparison of Northwest coal plans and Keystone XL project.
This post is part of the research project: Northwest Coal Exports

The planned Keystone XL oil pipeline has earned major national attention for the damage it would do to the climate. At the same time, another climate drama is playing out with much less attention as coal companies make plans to export huge quantities to Asia by way of Pacific Northwest ports. It’s pretty clear that both projects are environmental horror stories, but I’ve been wondering: which one is worse?

So, from the “King Kong versus Godzilla” files, here’s my analysis of their carbon impacts. It turns out, coal exports are actually the bigger problem—and that’s really saying something.

The result surprised me: coal exports look to be an even bigger climate disaster than the pipeline. There are, in fact, quite a bit more direct emissions from burning the coal than from the oil. That’s true even when one counts the energy-intensive tar sands extraction and processing—and, of course, there are plenty of upstream emissions associated with coal mining that I’ve left out of the equation here. (In order to make a roughly direct comparison, I also omitted emissions associated with both products’ mining, refining, transportation, and so forth.) Clearly we can ill afford either one of these projects, but until we have a clear energy policy that respects climate science we’ll be wrestling with these kind of killer projects one at a time.

Now, for all the energy and math geeks out there, here’s the methodology I used to generate these numbers.

To calculate the carbon-dioxide emissions from coal exports, I assumed that 110 million tons of Powder River Basin coal are exported each year. That’s consistent with the 50 million tons planned for Cherry Point, Washington and 60 million tons planned for Longview, Washington. (It’s a figure that may actually understate the actual volume of exports because the Longview project sponsors have already been caught out using an 80 million ton figure, and there are nascent or rumored coal export plans that I didn’t account for in places like Grays Harbor, Washington; St. Helens, Oregon; and Coos Bay, Oregon.) I further assumed that Powder River Basin coal generates 8,500 BTUs per pound, and that one million BTUs would produce 212.7 pounds of CO2, consistent with US Department of Energy figures. Do all the algebra, and you arrive at 199 million tons of CO2 per year in “direct” emissions from the coal exports.

My coal emissions accounting leaves out a lot. I did not count the emissions associated with mining, processing, rail shipping, storing, maritime shipping, constructing new port or rail facilities, or any other related activities. I also didn’t count any non-CO2 or fugitive emissions. All I counted, in short, was the CO2 that will be directly released by burning the coal.

To calculate the CO2 emissions from the Keystone XL pipeline, I assumed that the pipeline moves 830,000 barrels of oil per day, which is what the US State Department says, and which works out to about 303 million barrels per year. I then assumed that each barrel of oil contains 0.43 metric tons of C02, which is what the US EPA assigns for an “average” barrel of oil. That all works out to just shy of 144 million short tons of CO2 per year for direct emissions from burning the oil.

The pipeline will not be moving “average” oil, of course, but rather tar sands oil, which is especially dirty and carbon intensive. Keep in mind, however, that “tailpipe” or direct emissions for the refined products that come from the oil—gasoline, diesel, kerosene, etc—are basically the same no matter what the original feedstock is. In other words, every gallon of gasoline you burn in your car produces pretty much the same amount of CO2 whether it originally came from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Coast, or the Canadian oil sands. The difference is that it takes a lot more energy, and therefore carbon, to extract and process tar sands oil.

So to account for the special nastiness of tar sands oil, I factored in the emissions that are associated with “producing” or extracting it. Using figures from David Strahan, Wikipedia, and other sources I assumed that extracting the oil and “upgrading” to make it suitable for refining results in somewhere around 18 to 26 percent more carbon emissions than the direct emissions from burning the fuel itself. (The exact amount depends on the local characteristics of the oil deposit as well as the technology deployed and other factors.) I took the mid-point of that range, 21.7 percent, and added 31 million tons of CO2 per year for the pipeline oil.

To maintain a roughly apples-to-apples comparison with my coal emissions calculation, I didn’t factor in emissions from shipping, refining, distributing, constructing the pipeline, or any other related activities. And again, I didn’t count any non-CO2 or fugitive emissions. All I counted, in short, was the CO2 that will be directly released by burning the oil plus the emissions required to extract and process the oil from the tar sands deposits.

Comments and suggestions (and corrections) are of course very welcome.

Thanks to Jessie Dye at Earth Ministry who prompted me to do this analysis.

We are a community-supported resource and we can’t do this work without you!



  1. Jessie Dye says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful comparison. Washington, Oregon and BC activists who are fighting coal export from our shores will be grateful for this information.

  2. Van Anderson says:

    Not to put a damper on your conclusion here, but I believe that much of the concern about the Keystone XL pipeline lies in the threat of leaks to plains aquifers and the water supply for millions of people and a large portion of the agricultural production in the United States. While the climate impact of the tar sands and Northwest coal exports are both undeniably grim, it is the more visceral concerns about groundwater pollution that have energized both liberal environmentalists and conservative representatives (eg Nebraska’s governor) to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline.

    • Eric de Place says:

      Good perspective, Val.

      I’m not in any way trying to diminish the very real and serious environmental risks that aren’t related to climate changing-emissions. Clearly, the XL pipeline carries some serious problems related to water. It’s also worth noting that western coal mining and shipment comes with a whole batch of non-CO2 nasties too.

    • Phillip Martin, PhD., MSc says:

      While it is true that since 1788 when the oilsands of Alberta were first discovered by a US explorer called Peter Pond and the Scots explorer called Alexander MacKenzie the resource was referred to as akin to TAR as there was no comparator other than coal tar. But in 1951 it was agreed at a chemical conference in EDmonton that the name TARSANDS was geologically incorrect as TAR was man made.
      What Alberta has is oilsands as oil is recovered from the Bitumen not tar. Fringe groups call it tarsands. People of intellect call it OILSANDS. The first Company to extract it was Great Canadian Oil SAnds, 96% owned by Sun OIl of Philadelphia. So to the intellectual folks its OILSANDS. Thank you for your time and integrity.

      • Valli Sanstrom says:

        “Oil sands” it is for me from now on. Thanks for the post.

  3. canyonguy26 says:

    Since coal is going to burned anyway…your Co2 argument seems to be null and void. The overall pollutants burned by this coal will be less than most alternatives from other countries! The use of cleaner western US coal will help clean the environment! It worked here it will work in Asia.

    This port is a great opportunity for the country! Jobs and a cleaner environment!

    I am not even going to get into the fact that the entire Climate Change based on Carbon is currently being re-thought……

    • Barry Saxifrage says:

      Thermal coal is over. It is done. Too dangerous to civilization compared to the alternatives. Munich Re says thermal coal in the USA is a “dead man walking.” Not even counting climate change, the cost to society from coal pollution is greater than the benefit it supplies. The USA is cutting coal burning and hasn’t been building replacement plants for decades. It has lost its social licence. Slow death of attrition now.

      But that hasn’t stopped the coal barons from trying to sell their dangerous product elsewhere. Thus the coal export fight.

      There are other sources of high-job, low-damage energy sources that USA can create and export. If you want job opportunities and to better the social condition of Americans coal isn’t the way to go.

      • John Wright says:

        This is something crazy to even say, what planet do you live on that coal is over. Yes they are some stupid people here in the united states that wants to completely do away with coal because of climate change. Climate change happens everyday and it always has. The whole earth has been on fire before, and years of wildfires with no fireman.
        There is no gobal warming
        If we stop mining our coal I think it would be a national security issue, Coal helps produce many things like Steel and Lime for starters, that requires high btu coal to make, and nothing that I know of can burn as hot as coal.
        We got technology to keep clean water and other things to protect us, But you people arent going to stop til we are back in the horse and buggy days with wind mills a solar panels. we want be able to make anything anymore because of EPA and green movement hippies wants to shut everything down. Then We will be at war and taken by another country and our familes will be raped and killed and some of us will be slaves, and they will be mining our coal and drilling our gas and oil. What do you think made this country what it is today its resources, Oil first made it the richest and coal produced its electricity to manufacture and succeed, Dont think for a minute if we get weak another Country want come and try to take it over for what we got. I like everyone in all countrys but they will never be peace on earth as long as it stands. You activist are making our country weak, look at the jobs people has lost in the last few years in this country because of protesters. Anymore you just about have to have a permit to whip your ass in this country, Horses in citys wearing diapers, wanting to tax farmers for animals taking a shit. How do you people sleep at night with yourselves putting people out of work and stopping plants and factorys, Fining companys over stupid things that dont really pertain to climate or saftey just trying to shut another business down. What are you people going to bitch about when theres nothing here. Let me guess complain about being a slave in a coal mine somewhere with no regulations and no quiting time or paycheck, if your lucky. If you people dont love this country for what it is and has been move to a different one because we would be alot better off without you protesters and activist. Im not agaist protecing the enviroment but putting people out of work is not the answer, theres ways to clean water and purify streams from coal mines to keep ph levels ok, but isin’t that acid mine water some of the same acid thats put in fertilezer to grow food with or that is put in certin medication and in just about everything else, acid is everywhere and in everything so stop bitching about it. For Co2 its a joke but if we can put a man on the moon in 1969 we can burn clean affordable coal in 2012, And im a Democrate not a Republian before you people start politics. In all honesty you people should get in your green vw peace vans and drive off somewhere that way we dont have to look at all your stupid shit on tv and lies your false teachings to the younger people and fill your pockets full with dirty money, before you start a civil war because the real american people is getting tired of hearing this crap and ready to go back to work and willing to do what it takes to get our country back where it needs to be, not where you all think it should be. If you want to ride camuels move over seas because the real americans dont.

    • Barry Saxifrage says:

      You seem to be saying that other countries will burn their own dirtier coal if we don’t sell them our slightly cleaner coal. So we should sell them our coal to burn and then their dirty coal will stay in the ground forever.

      Nice try. You say yourself that “coal is going to be burned anyway”. So by your own reasoning the other countries will burn BOTH our coal and their own dirty coal.

      The fight for a stable enough weather system for humans to remain prosperous under requires we stop all coal and unconventional carbon fuels from leaving the ground everywhere we can. Period.

    • Valli Sanstrom says:

      Our country needs it’s water infrastructure systems fixed, including stormwater, wastewater, and drinking water. That’s where the jobs need to be,and could be if monies spent on stupid wars and subsidizing polluting corporations were redirected.

      We have the knowledge to fix the problems. We need the political will.

  4. Eric de Place says:

    Hi canyonguy,

    I don’t really want to rehash our last round, but it probably is worth pointing out for readers that even the coal companies themselves say that the coal isn’t going anywhere — and hence won’t get burned — if the WA export terminals aren’t built. See here for example:

    • canyonguy26 says:

      The world has lots of coal! Lots and Lots and Lots of COAL! Do you truly think China is not going to burn coal if the United States doesn’t export it? Do you really think it is going to affect the price of coal on a massive scale?

      Let me stress again…. THE WORLD HAS LOTS OF COAL!

      We happen to have some of the least polluting…. lets use it first and as the technology improves we can burn dirtier stuff.

      Western US Coal can help to clean the stacks of Asia!

      … also creating much needed well paying jobs!

      • Barry Saxifrage says:

        Again your own reasoning says that Asia will burn BOTH our dirty coal and their own even dirtier coal. So why give it to them?

        Or do you have a magic plan where Asian nations leave their coal in the ground forever if we dig ours up and sell it to them for profit? Why wouldn’t they just dig theirs up and sell it or burn it too?

        Western US Coal will only increase the number of coal stacks in Asia according to your own reasoning.

    • Bryan says:

      I must have missed that Eric, what do you mean coal isn’t going anywhere?? Its going now, isn’t what this whole discussion board is all about?? I’ll say what I did in the article your quoting, that is the same company that signed a new 10 year contrat for 10-12mil tons a year, again that is 4 times more than they’ve been exporting the last 4 years!! I don’t mind that you are using certain facts, but, they are changing all the time, Westshore will be putting in a third dumper and two high speed dumpers in the next 10-14 months, so again Westshore’s capacity will go up to a little over 34mil tons a year, that is 9 mil more tons than the capacity was two yeras ago. Neptune Terminal is expanding to 12mil tons so Tek can ship most of the Met coal out of there to free up 8-13mil tons at Westshore for guess what?? Yes… Powder River Basin coal exports!! Prince Rupert I noticed you mentioned, yes they and the CN railroad will be bring up to 14mil tons a year starting in 2014, but that would still leave 12-16mil tons of capacity after that terminal expansion is finished.. Again, where are you getting the idea if ports aren’t built in Washington the coal will just so down or stop?? The coal companies have already got they’re feet wet in the export market and it WILL only get bigger!!

  5. Eric de Place says:


    First, please send me a link or some evidence that Cloud Peak has a contract for 10-12 mil tons/year. I’m dubious.

    Your figures for Prince Rupert don’t work out. That terminal is already close to using its full capacity of 12m tons. It’s going to add another 12m tons, but that is going to be pretty well occupied by new Canadian exports on contract of 11m tons. It’s also pretty clearly the case that Prince Rupert is not an economical choice for PRB shippers because of its distance; and the Canadian mining industry is making sure that it stays true to its charter of shipping Canadian coal.

    Two final points:

    1.) Please remember that the coal companies themselves say they need WA port capacity to move their coal. They ought to know. (And if they didn’t need WA ports, then why would they even bother with all this delay and expense?)

    2.) There is somewhere north of 100 million tons of coal planned for export from Washington that we know about. That not only exceeds all the coal terminal capacity in all of British Columbia combined — it’s more like double. So in as much as Canada’s robust mining industry is still planning on shipping any of its much higher-value coal, there is simply no place to move US PRB coal except for little fragments here and there. That’s what the coal companies know, and that’s why they want to build new coal ports in Washington.

    • canyonguy26 says:

      Please answer:
      Do you truly think China is not going to burn coal if the United States doesn’t export it?

      Do you really think 100 million tons of export coal is is going to affect the world price of coal on a scale that will effect if China continues to build Coal Plants?

      Lets say China is going to burn coal regardless…… would you rather have coal with high amounts of toxins burned or low amounts of toxin burned?

      So far you have not answered these questions……

      • Eric de Place says:

        I think the economic fundamentals are actually pretty clear: increasing supply reduces price and increases consumption. Economist Tom Power has more on precisely this question here:

        So if we don’t want more coal burned, we shouldn’t increase its supply to market. It’s not all that complicated really.

        I’m not sure how to unpack your question about whether I want dirtier coal burned instead. Obviously not — and restricting US coal exports doesn’t commit me to that — but yours is a circular sort of logic. Do I want to burn dirty coal or dirtier coal? Would I rather be run over by a bus or a truck? Neither, thanks.

      • Barry Saxifrage says:

        canyonguy, do you really think China in not going to burn BOTH our coal and their own coal?

        Why should we sell them even more toxic and climate destabilizing coal to burn?

        We need to stop inflating the carbon bubble or we will all pay a “catastrophic” economic price that will make today’s jobs problems seem like full employment.

    • Bryan says:

      First I don’t care that you don’t believe the numbers, let me make that VERY clear.. If you need that much evidence then look up “coal export news” on the net and start looking at everything that is put out every day.. First Cloud Peaks announcement is in there I believe dated in May, Westshore’s expansion is there dated in September, Neptune Terminals expansion is there dated in February, and Prince Rupert’s expansion is there dated in June, all of 2011.. I will agree with one piont, the coal companies do need a port or two in Washington, but, make NO mistake, even with a terminal or two in WAshington, there will still be coal exportedthrough BC. And I have to agree with canyon, answer our questions. You put so many reasons why we shouldn’t be exporting coal, but, your not even admitting the fact that China or India will get “dirtier” coal from other places in the world. I’ve said before, if anyone of these green groups want to be taken seriously, quit driving a car that burns gas, move into a cave where your not using forest products, and take yourself off the electric grid where there is over a 55% chance that your using coal for your electicity. I’ve seen people on here say that is an extreme, why? It’s hypocritical that you want to stop using resources but your using them yourself!! Eric, I appricate you possition, but understand there are a lot more of us that don’t see the same thing. I’ve said before there needs to be a compromise and the enviormental groups don’t know how.. It is thier way or no way. Wrong!

      • Eric de Place says:


        I’ll take that response to mean there’s no support for your assertion. There was a Cloud Peak announcement with Westshore in June, but the terms are confidential. Given capacity constraints and past shippments, I don’t think your figures are reasonable, but I am always open to be persuaded by evidence to the contrary. Again, please provide me with some.

        Let me again respond to you’re “dirtier coal from elsewhere” argument. It’s a question of economics and respected resource economist Tom Power has addressed this issue in rather a lot of detail. You can start here: The upshot is, however, basic economics: if we increase supply, that will tend to push the price down, and thereby increase consumption. One might argue about the magnitude I suppose, but the fundmentals are pretty clear.

        Finally, although I hestitate to even respond to it, it’s something close to insane to suggest that because I don’t want to increase use of the dirtiest fossil fuel on the planet that I should live in a cave without electricity. Why can’t I simply want more energy efficiency, more clean and renewable energy, and pollution prices that make polluters pay for the substantial costs they’re currently off-loading onto the public?

        Your position seems akin to a smoker refusing to quit his three-pack-a-day habit because he doesn’t want to become a vegan ultra-marathon runner. No need to live in a cave, thanks, just less pollution please.

      • Bryan says:

        So, you’ve read the report.. That’s good. Where I’ve gotten my info from is the people that work at Westshore. Yes, true the details are confidencial with the Cloud Peak exports, but the people that work up there have said it is in the range that I mentioned. Whatever Tom’s responce is I don’t agree with, the India’s and Chinese want the PRB coal cause it is cleaner. Again, I feel that you tiptoe around the issue. This wasn’t an issue till export facilities started getting planned in Washington, coal has been exported from the PRB for several years and nothing was ever said. Cleaner is fine, but until its affordable I don’t see a reason that it needs to be different. And I don’t agree with telling companies who and what they can sell to a nother country. This goes back to the piont I made several weeks ago, this is an industrilise country and it has quickly become a service country cause the enviromentalist make it impossible to do business in this country, and personly I’m tired of a small minority dictating what happens in this country. And, these are the same people that are complaining about the unemployment rate and most anything else that is wrong in this country..

      • Eric de Place says:


        I appreciate you joining the conversation here, but I don’t know how I can argue someone who’s position is: “Whatever Tom’s responce is I don’t agree with it…”

        Take the time to absorb it first.

        PRB coal has been moving in the past, but only recently and only at very small volumes. About 3 million tons last year and around 4 million this year. I think it’s clear that the reason everyone’s upset now is we’re talking about 100+ million tons of coal that mostly can’t find a market to be burned without WA ports. It’s a very big deal, and especially for the communities directly affected.

        I’ll ignore for now your uninformed ranting about environmentalists and the economy. Suffice it to say that greens had exceedingly little to do with credit default swaps.

      • Bryan says:

        I don’t have a clue what credit swapping has to do with enviormentalist making it impossible to do any kind of business in this this country but that sounds like your issue. I’m NOT uninformed! I don’t know how long you’ve lived in the area but the enviromentalist blew the hell out of the timber industry 25 years ago, just like they did the steel industry 30+ years ago. Greenies aren’t going to be happy unless we are importing everything, then we’ll be like Greace or Italy or Spain. I know the economics of supply and demand, I do work for the largest railroad and studied it in school, so please don’t talk to me like I’m stupid! The point Jason and I are making is simple, you could stop all the exports from Canada and the US and it won’t make it damn difference how much coal the asian countries are going to burn. Now, if any of you care to agree then there is a starting point, if not, then you truely show your ignorance. As for how long the BNSF and UP have been exporting coal through Westshore, it has been about five years that there has been much over 1.5mil tons, this year will be around 6.5 mil including what is going through Prince Rupert, last year was 4mil and the two years before that 3-4mil tons. What I would like an answer to though is this, of all the coal that has been taken out of the PRB since 82 or so, I’ve never heard of any health conditions going bad cause a coal train went by every hour or so. So, where is all this scary health crap coming from?? Has peoples health from Vancouver Wa. to Blain gotten worst the last 5 years?? Easy answer, NO!! So there is another arguement that holds no water. What is funny about this issue from a personal side, I’m supposed to take the other side arguements as gospel and believe everything that is said. The bad thing is either side has thier own agenda, I’m just trying to make sure I’ve got a job for the next 18 years for my retirement. I’m open minded enough to listen to someone else’s view about anything, but when it comes to a small minority that feels their point is more important than the majority than it is an arguement I don’t mind having, especially when the other side isn’t as open minded as they expect everyone else to be. Eric I’ll keep reading your blog and responding, I do respect your position, may not agree but I do respect it.

  6. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    I’m a little curious about the numbers too, given that they are so much greater than current coal exports from the region.

  7. canyonguy26 says:


    Actual 1st phase of coal exports out of Cherry Point is about 24 million tons, insignificant compared to overall global trade. 100 million tons is would be significant but by the time things are ramped up to this level (if it ever happens), global coal sea trade is expected to be far greater in tonnage than it is currently. Making the 100 million tons unlikely to greatly affect prices.

  8. canyonguy26 says:

    Here is fact on projected Indonesian coal production by 2020 just by itself….

    • Eric de Place says:

      I hear the projected heroin and cocaine exports from South Asia are huge too. I guess that means the US should become a narcotics exporter. After all, someone else might ship the drugs if we don’t, and their drugs are allegedly even dirtier.

      • Bryan says:

        Wow, really this is the stand that your going to make?? Eric, this is kinda wrong.. He pionts out what is going on in another country, again your pionts are all blowin up when you make a commit like that. Look you’ve got a great blog here, but unless your side of this arguement comes to grips that the Ausies of South Africa or Indinesia will continue to export very “dirty” coal to India and China most of your arguements are pretty much blowing smoke in the wind…

    • Barry Saxifrage says:

      Keystone XL was project to be under construction today. In fact TransCanada had already mowed the entire 1,700 mile route and placed a billion dollars in pipe along the way.

      My point is that projections by the carbon fuels industry of what they will be allowed to do — and what people will be willing to put up with — have been very wrong over the last decade. The rules of the game are changing and rubber stamps are gone along with our stable weather system and predictable crop supplies and pricing.

      We have a nasty carbon bubble inflating and the people calling stop to it are trying to save the economy, jobs and capital of our nation from imploding once again like with the housing bubble.

  9. Ragweed says:

    If less supply is available it will increase the energy costs for burning coal compared to alternatives. That is pretty basic supply and demand economics.

    At the moment, reduced shipping from the US is unlikely to mean that China burns less coal, because China has invested heavily in coal-burning powerplants. The plants are already built, so even if the price goes up there will still be substantial demand for coal to burn to recoup the investment (unless the cost of coal get so high that it makes more sense to shut them down and take the loss, but that would be unlikely). In the short term, that probably does mean more dirty coal.

    However, higher costs for coal shift the cost consideration for NEW projects and plants. Relevant to climate, China already has substantial investments in nuclear and alternative energy production. Rising costs for coal will help shift the decision from coal to less climate-damaging energy sources.

    Plus, I really doubt that increasing the supply of “cleaner” (a term I find difficult to apply to caol) western US coal going to China will mean that less dirty coal gets burned. More likely it will just lower the cost of keeping old, dirty and ineffecient power plants in operation (or maybe it will get shipped to Germany).

  10. Cult of Bryan says:

    For me it a clean vs. dirty. Clean is the world i would like to live in, dirty is your pro-industry trolling. If the profit margin is reduced these plans will be cancelled because big energy expects big profits. Party time! How much has Exxon made in the last years and we still need to save our economy with your oily brain matter.

  11. Steve Erickson says:

    If we don’t want coal to be burned, then keeping it from being burned will result in less coal being burned. Period.

    As Eric says, its simple supply and demand. If classical economics is correct, then Powder River coal will be exported from Washington ports only if it is cheaper to do so than to obtain that energy supply elsewhere (or by an alternate method). If it is not cheaper, then it will not be exported.

    So if we internalize into the price of the coal the external costs of climate emissions, localized pollution from rail shipping, costs to other commerce from longer waits at RR crossings, probable loss of the Cherry Point Herring stock, and degradation of quality of life from those affected by these impacts, the effect will be to raise the price. This is the real cost of this coal.

    Therefore, if energy from another source is cheaper than the real cost of the Powder River coal it will be used instead. However, it will be more expensive than the unreal cost of that coal; that is, the cost without internalization of the costs listed above. Because it is more expensive, less of it will be used.

    Unless you don’t believe in supply and demand?

  12. Steve Erickson says:

    Following up on my last comment, at 199 million tons of C02 per year, what would be the impact on the coal export schemes if there were a Carbon price, be it through a cap and trade system or direct tax?

    How much is that 199 million tons of coal worth to the coal companies without internalization of any climate impacts?
    What are tons of CO2e trading for in Europe now?

    • canyonguy26 says:

      So you guys would like to make up up fake costs to make US coal more expensive so dirtier coal can be burned…… WOW!

      • Steve Erickson says:

        Are you volunteering to pay for someone’s asthma medicine? Or maybe buy the boat of a salmon fisherman after the Cherry Point Herring are extirpated?

        But, of course you don’t address the basic economics. Who knows? Perhaps, like the final added voice that let others besides Horton hear the pleas from Whoville, our resistance in the PNW may be just the extra little bit that makes coal so expensive that a single new coal plant won’t be built and that will be the change that prevents the climate from spinning totally out of control.

        If you’re pointed in the right direction, every step you take gets you closer.

  13. canyonguy26 says:

    I dont address basic economics?????? I posted links to articles that show how small this port is compared with the total Global Thermal Sea Trade. This does not even account for India and Asia’s domestic Production. This puts this ports influence on pricing far lower.

    Lets pretend you can somehow how affect one Chinese coal plant from being built by not allowing this port. While you are doing this you are letting (7) 3 million ton a year plants burn dirtier coal. And that is if you could even affect pricing enough to stop a plant from being built.

    Nobody seems to be taking into account that coal is cheap in the World. China is going to burn it…they are burning it…..You can tax US coal all you want….they are still going to burn coal from somewhere.

    US Coal can make it cleaner… worked here and can work in Asia (or any other country that wants our coal).

  14. Mike O'Connell says:

    Cant leave out Australia when you’re talking about coal exports.
    They are the worlds largest exporter of coal. Australia supplies one third of the worlds coal trade.
    The proposed port expansion in Washington is being developed by Ambre Energy who are also trying to build Australia’s first coal to liquid fuels plant in the fertile Felton Valley in Queensland.

  15. casual observer says:

    Wow, some days you just can’t make anyone happy, eh Bryan?!

    For what it is worth, the analysis you have posted, and your assumptions, are pretty straightforward. (And I am sure that short of an NSF grant to fully explicate ALL variables and create a 2000 page report, some folks will never find your analysis adequate….)

    The bottom line is that we have a lose/lose scenario in the making and it IS a global crisis. That much is painfully clear. Now, if only we could have an honest debate about the science followed by action in Congress to create a real energy policy that is interest-group neutral. I can dream.

    • Bryan says:

      Casual Observer I appriciate that someone thinks I’m not an idiot!! I know that what ever is said neither side is going to actually see the others side the way each want. But, I do agree that this counrty needs to truely figure out the science on what carbon is actually doing, then come up with an energy policy. With this whole arguement I do believe there should be a carbon tax like the Ausies are in the process of passing. With that being said, coal is still by far the cheapest and easiest energy source in the world. that probably will never change. So if those countries want to pay the tax to burn it we are pretty much a square one, then that is their choice to buy it and burn it. That pretty much sums up my position, as long as someone is going to pay, then sell it, isn’t that called capitalism? Isn’t that what this country’s economy based on??

  16. Bill Mitchell says:

    Eric, The construct of your argument bothers me. Is this a “mine is bigger than your’s is”? Sorry, both propositions are bad news for the environment and western North American communities. Don’t weigh one against another. Our position ought to be to embrace a challenge against both.

    • Eric de Place says:


      I know where you’re coming from, and I was actually trying to avoid making one seem “more important” than the other. The main goal I had was simply to highlight that for all the deserved attention given to the pipeline, it would great to get some comparable attention to the coal export plans.

      As I said in the post, “Clearly we can ill afford either one of these projects”!

  17. Andy Andersson says:

    In making the arguments about the coal-export impact you have to use a figure for the the increased coal burning, not the total coal burning. Canyonguy is correct that there are other sources for coal and the reduction in coal burning due to the price impact of western coal exports is fairly small, although not negligible.

    For environmental arguments to be taken seriously it is important to use valid analysis.

    • Eric de Place says:


      I think it’s a perfectly comparable analysis. There are other sources of oil, even tar sands oil, that will still be supplied if the KXL pipeline isn’t built. Yet, that pipeline project is still important because it will help bring more tar sands to market than would otherwise be available.

      It’s exactly the same story for the two big coal port proposals in Washington. Obviously, there are other sources of coal that can be burned, but absent those terminals a whole lot of PRB coal isn’t going to find a market.

      I agree that there might be some usefulness in trying to evaluate the marginal price effects that these projects would have on coal and oil as commodities and then factoring in consumer’s demand elasticity. But without writing that PhD dissertation, my analysis does provide, I think, a useful way to scale the problematic investments we’re making in burning more fossil fuels.

      • canyonguy26 says:

        The railroads are already gearing up big-time to handle oil out of the oil sands if a pipeline doesn’t go thru. The oil will make it to market. It just likely wont be coming to American refineries in huge quantities.

        As for coal this conversation, it just goes in Circles!

        If without new coal ports less PRB coal makes it to Asia and dirtier coal is burned instead . How does this help the environment?

  18. Andrea Faste says:

    What seems to be lost in all of this debate is that the remaining coal in the earth should stay in the earth, at least for the next 200 years until carbon sequestration is really possible. The United States government has a terrible track record with real climate legislation. We need a carbon tax, collected and returned to US citizens, to force the big fossil fuel producers to get serious about alternative energy sources and move away from coal, oil and gas as quickly as possible. As it is, our atmosphere has 4% more moisture in it NOW, and wherever the coal is burned, and wherever it comes from, we are in the adaptation stages of climate change already. If we make it harder for coal companies to export, that’s a good thing. If it finally appears that fossil fuel producers have not paid off Congress, we might have a fighting chance for our great grandchildren. Otherwise, the planet is toast, and there will be nothing we can do about it. Dr. James Hansen of NASA believes it is game over if the Tar Sands project goes through, so if that’s bad, according to Eric, the export of coal through Idaho and Montana is worse. We haven’t even begun to address the health and safety issues connected to moving tons and tons of coal through the Northwest. The biggest question of all is whether short term scrambling for cash out of coal is morally defensible. I don’t think so. It isn’t a green environmental issue, it is the condition of earth’s 10 miles above us, which for millennia has averaged around 350 parts per million(ppm) of co2 so that human civilization could evolve. We are already at 390 ppm using the sky as our last dumping ground. We’re stuck between looking at a short term grab for stockholders in fossil fuel corporations, or whether we want life on earth to be possible for humans over the long term. So far, the dump and run forces are winning.

  19. canyonguy26 says:

    American Coal with American Jobs will help clean stacks Worldwide!

    Build the Ports!!!!!
    Build the Ports!!!!!
    Build the Ports!!!!!
    Build the Ports!!!!!
    Build the Ports!!!!!

    • canyonguy26 says:

      By the way…the reason your tonnage figures may not ad up for Ridley:

      Not all Ridley Coal goes to Canada moves through Seattle border exchange. Much of the coal doesn’t even come close to the Seattle/Vancouver border…..

      • Eric de Place says:

        Yes, I’m aware of that. You still can’t identify any significant quantities of coal moving out the northern border west of Lake Superior.

  20. canyonguy26 says:

    Sweetgrass is also a normal exit…. I believe it is not Cloud Peak Coal.

    • Eric de Place says:

      The Sweetgrass crossing is part of the Great Falls (Montana) Customs District. I have monitored and depicted coal exports from there in two places:

      On both charts I’ve shown the Great Falls District figures with a green line. It is actually hard to see because the amount of coal export from there is so incredibly tiny that is is barely perceptible relative to the exports from the Seattle Customs District, which covers the Cloud Peak shipments to Westshore. In other words, there’s no significant volume of US coal moving out of that district either. All of which is just more proof of what the coal companies themselves are saying clearly: if the Washington ports don’t get built, the coal won’t get shipped.

      • Bryan says:

        Eric, just thought I’d let you know that Rieley Terminals has started their expansions that will double the capacity. That will take that terminal to 24mil tons a year. So, again, there will still be room for US exports. It may not be 50-100mil tons, but the point has been that US exports will still be going north….

  21. Barry Saxifrage says:

    As the world’s most important climatologist, James Hansen of NASA, says both coal and unconventional carbon fuels like tar sands need to be left in the ground forever. It isn’t an either/or choice here.

    I love the article’s focus on coal as it seems to be the silent export these days. I would have preferred a headline however that didn’t try to make one seem smaller than the other and instead focused on the need to shut them both down. Something like: “Coal exports rival Keystone XL in climate damage”

    It is hard to say how much carbon “Keystone XL” really unleashes. That is because it is first and foremost a right-of-way. Yes there is one pipe of a certain size going in first, but the industry has shown over and over that they love to increase the number of pipes on their right-of-ways. Look at Kinder Morgan going into Vancouver BC right now.

    In a related note, I agree with Ken Caldiera and others that we need to shift our focus from carbon burning to carbon extraction. We should be working to put a carbon price on carbon as it comes out of the ground. You can move your burning (ex factory) to another country but you can’t move your tar sands or coal reserves. Until we price carbon extraction there will be increasing leakage (exports).

    Thanks again Eric for keeping the coal export beast on the climate radar.

  22. Barry Saxifrage says:

    The solution to climate change is to require carbon fuels to pay for the social costs caused by their carbon pollution. The marketplace can then properly pick the best energy source for humans.

    For coal, these social costs are so high that it will no longer be a viable source for electricity. So anything that adds to the cost of coal brings it closer to the true economic cost.

    Reducing supply increases costs.

    As far as Keystone XL the same rule holds. The delay alone will add at least a billion dollars to the project which is a de facto carbon tax. Shipping tar sands by train is much more expensive so that too is a de facto carbon tax. Stranding supply because of lack of pipes strands billions in capital which is another de facto carbon tax.

    Until the governments properly price carbon pollution it is left to climate concerned citizens to try anything they can to impose pollution pricing on carbon fuels.

    If the carbon fuel industry wants its social licence back it needs to set a cap on total carbon it will release and put a carbon pollution price on the carbon they do release. Then the fights go away and certainty returns.

  23. Barry Saxifrage says:

    The case of metallurgical coal is different than for thermal coal.

    Thermal coal is of such low value that any reasonable coal pollution price will put it out of biz as a fuel source. Period. It goes away with real carbon pricing.

    Metallurgical coal is used to make steel. In BC at least the average mine gate price for this grade has jumped from $40 to over $200 a tonne in last six years. The carbon tax on coal burned in BC is $50 a tonne. So even applying the BC carbon tax to it wouldn’t shut down this kind of coal. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have to pay for its pollution.

    The solution for Metallurgical coal in NW is to apply a carbon price to it at the mine gate. Then use that carbon revenue to help transition other parts of society away from fossil fuels where it is cheaper to do so.

    In my calculations, applying the BC Carbon Tax to BC Crown coal reserves at the mine gate would raise $1.5 billion per year. The surge in price per tonne shows the industry could afford to pay for their pollution from this carbon and still make big profits.

    In terms of jobs, the carbon revenue would be over $300k per coal job. It would be easy to create far more jobs than would be lost. The carbon tax on coal extraction would be a net jobs creator.

  24. Rick B says:

    If you take into consideration the ships that would be bringing the coal halfway around the world and the immense amount of pollution they pump directly into the oceans, the number increases dramatically. I can’t stand the thought that we are exporting our own natural resources when we could be using them right here at home in our own facilities, which I’m sure are much cleaner than the overseas facilities they are headed for. Our modern coal power plants are much cleaner than the days of old and are arguably cleaner than burning oil when you factor the whole picture in. Coal has come a long way in recent years but unfortunately the environmentalists refuse to acknowledge that fact or even check the numbers properly.

  25. Eldave says:

    Great article – I don’t know when we will realize that extracting crap from our planet and spewing it into the air doesn’t help a bit in terms of our own energy independence.

  26. Bob Kristen says:

    What I think has been missed and under communitcated is the current pipelines that exist that go through the aquifers and agricultural land. There is an extensive network of pipelines that already exist and the KXL pipeline will not be the first to transverse these areas of concern. The one difference with KXL is that it is a brand new pipeline with state of the art technology. I support the Keystone pipeline

  27. Andrew Herbst - Edmonton, Alberta says:

    I am just catching up to this stream of web logging, and lots of good points are being made. My own opinion is to build the state of the art Keystone pipeline. The jobs are beneficial, it can move liquid products of various kinds for decades, and selfishly speaking it can move our Canadian heavy oil (oh yeah, it’s heavy with carbon) which can be purchased by existing US refineries that have the spare capacity to process it into lighter fuels.

    Or it can be used for non-fuel purposes notably asphalt road paving.

    But let’s don’t overlook the key point that the emissions to atmosphere come from burning hydrocarbons (and we should be happy if only CO2 gets out when we burn them), so we need to discourage burning the fuels and the obvious way to do that is raise taxes on hydrocarbon fuel (at the retail level please – be honest, don’t try to bury it at the wholesale level so consumers think the oil producers are gouging them).

    This is the elephant in the room that politicians in a democratic society are loathe to even mention because it affects everyone’s household budget. But if it is announced early and done gradually (this is important because we have an economy to keep rolling), people will slowly migrate toward more efficient fuel consumption.

    With the tax money, alternative energy sources can be subsidized and people will slowly migrate toward these. Eventually, perhaps the heavy crudes are not economical and KXL is converted to transport other fluids such as natural gas, biofuels or water, and perhaps older less reliable pipelines can be de-commissioned.

    As for exporting coal, taxes can be raised on that commodity too – but do it gradually.

    The economy and jobs are at stake, and unemployment leads to social unrest and the environment gets ignored when social unrest dominates.

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