Coal Exports and Carbon Consequences II

How much is 145 million tons of coal?
This post is part of the research project: Northwest Coal & Oil Exports

There are at present six proposals to export coal from Northwest ports. If all of these proposals are built, and if all of them operate at full capacity, the Northwest would be shipping 145 million tons of coal per year.

When burned, that coal will produce roughly 262 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. It’s such a staggering figure, that it’s a little hard to grasp. So here’s some context:

US map with states highlighted


The coal export proposals are, in other words, a disaster for the climate. In aggregate, they are actually far worse than the Keystone XL pipeline.

If you want to dig into the numbers on a project-by-project basis, here they area:

  • Cherry Point, Washington. SSA Marine is planning to build and operate the Gateway Pacific Terminal, a new shipping facility north of Bellingham that would be capable of handling 48 million tons of coal per year. Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private sector coal company, has already agreed to supply 24 million tons of coal.
  • Longview, Washington. Millennium Bulk Terminals, a subsidiary of the Australian coal mining company Ambre Energy, purchased a port site on the Columbia River. Arch Coal, a major American coal mining company, has a 38 percent stake in the site. Ambre hopes to export 44 million tons of coal, with 25 million tons in the first phase.
  • Grays Harbor, Washington. According to newspaper accounts, RailAmerica is planning to develop a coal export terminal at the Port of Grays Harbor’s Marine Terminal 3 that could handle 5 million tons of coal each year.
  • Port of St. Helens, Oregon. Kinder Morgan is planning to build and operate a coal export terminal at the Port Westward Industrial Park near Clatskanie that will be capable of handling 30 million tons of coal per year, with 15 million tons in an initial phase of development.
  • Port of Morrow, Oregon. Ambre Energy is planning to construct a facility on the Columbia River in eastern Oregon that will transfer coal from rail to barges that will be towed downriver to Port Westward where the coal will be loaded on ongoing vessels. The company says that the system will be capable of handling 8 million tons per year.
  • Coos Bay, Oregon. The Port of Coos Bay is considering a mysterious proposal, known to the public only as “Project Mainstay,” that officials say could export 6 to 10 million tons of coal per year.

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 the US Federal Highway Administration’s statistics and assumes 19.6 pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon of gasoline.

Please also see an earlier version of this post, Coal Exports and Carbon Consequences.

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  1. loveamerica1 says:

    And if it doesn’t come from the US it will still be burned and most of it much dirtier than our western coal!

    Not to mention, some of this coal may be qualified in the new plants being built in China.

    Plus any Colorado & Utah coal can be used to fire blast furnaces as well as thermal.

    • Barry Saxifrage says:

      Hey I love America too. But I don’t agree that coal demand doesn’t care about volume of coal supply. Just look at the price of coal after Australia flooding took out a big chunk of the supply from there for awhile.

      Wind and solar are already cost-competitive with new coal in many regions. Rising the price of coal by restricting supply is just the kind of thing that will start to favour safer energy sources. At least until we have a global carbon pollution fee that is one of the best options open to those that want to a pass along a nice hospitable climate to our kids.

  2. loveamerica1 says:

    Something happened in transfer of my message… here is another try.

    Some of our coal may go to new gasification plants being built in China. Some may go to Japan and India. Some (Utah&Colorado) may be burned in blast furnaces to make steel.

    You do not know where all of this coal is going or how it will be burned. If coal is going to be burned overseas with no scrubbers or pollution controls, Environmentalists and people like me who care about the environment should be applauding the export of our cleaner burning coal.

    There is such a thing as cleaner coal…and we have lots of it!

    • Eric de Place says:

      Couple of comments. First, so-called “clean coal” is second only to dirty coal in being the most polluting fuel source on earth. It’s extremely damaging to local air quality, not to mention the climate.

      And from a climate perspective, it doesn’t matter a bit how it’s burned. All the CO2 will go into the atmosphere with potentially dire consequences.

      Finally, I’m just mystified why coal industry supporters think that there’s some fixed demand for coal that’s independent of supply. Like most every other good on earth, the demand for coal depends greatly on its price, which in turn depends greatly on the quantity of its supply. If you care about climate change, you’ll want to keep as much coal as possible out of the global supply.

    • hlehman says:

      This is not an either or situation. All of it will get burned. Or did you not bother to think about the pamphlet you got from the PR department at “clean coal”? China’s own PR says they will make more soft drinks as a form of carbon sequestration, and I bet you think that is “nifty” too. We are so doomed.

      • Gillian says:

        No, it definitely won’t all be burnt. To prevent catastrophic warming, 80% will need to be left in the ground as stranded assets. That is one reason that miners are trying to dig up as much as they can right now.

        Smart countries like Ecuador are negotiating to be paid to NOT mine fossil fuel deposits. They are the smart ones.

        Discussed here —

  3. Not Fan says:

    It’s unconstitutional for any one state to interfere with exports or imports.

    • hlehman says:

      I wonder why it isn’t unconstitutional to ignore the vast preponderance of evidence that shows we are devastating our ability grow food, breathe, and drink the water by consuming this form of energy at the rate and in the manner we do? Oh, that’s right! Because ignorance and vested interests have colluded again to ram this kind of project over everyone while tsk tsk-ing that it is all legal.

      • Not Fan says:

        The U.S. Constitution very sharply limits states from controlling commerce across their borders. Complain all you want, and do so in the most piteous and self-righteous terms. But it’s not going to change the law.

    • Barry Saxifrage says:

      You are correct “Not Fan” that states have limited ability to interfere with interstate commerce directly. However, states also have the right to approve projects inside their borders and one of the criteria they can consider is environmental impacts. So Washington state has every right to deny the construction of a coal port as long as they are not doing it strictly to limit trade. Looked at another way, state ‘A’ can’t force state ‘B’ to just build whatever state ‘A’ wants regardless of state ‘B’ laws. States do have rights.

  4. Robert Blum says:

    19.6 pounds of CO per gallon can’t be right. Or does that include the entire cycle of oil-gas-delivery?

    • Eric de Place says:

      19.6 pounds of CO2 (not CO). That figure does not include any “upstream” factors; it’s just the CO2 that’s emitted when the fuel is combusted. More here:

    • Clark Williams-Derry says:

      Yeah, it’s weird. But the C in the oil hooks up with 2 atoms of O in the air, so the CO2 is actually heavier than the oil it comes from.

  5. John Bremer says:

    This is an unfair game. Our government agents sell our corporate agents our coal for $1.00 per ton, which our corporate agents then sell to foreigners for $100.00 per ton. Our corporate agents personally take millions of dollars from this deal, which allows them to fund elections for candidates from local trustees up to the national agents who sell our coal for $1.00. On top of that, our corporate agents impose on us the cost not only of global warming, but also of building and adapting our local infrastructure to their polluting operations. Our local tax money will be used to build sewers, water, overpasses, etc. to accommodate their operations.

  6. Le'bouf says:

    Will exporting coal from the PNW increase global coal consumption?

    Level 1 analysis – When supply goes up, prices go down. As prices go down, demand goes up.

    Level 2 – When supply goes up “x”, prices go down “y”. As prices go down “y”, demand goes up “z”.

    Implying that ‘tonnage exported’ equals a ‘disastrous’ amount of additional/new/global increase of GHGs etc. is an exaggeration.

  7. Dan J says:

    I think your calcs actually understate the CO2.
    145 million tons at 70% C would be about 101 million tons C,
    which translates to about 376 million tons CO2.

    This is a LOT of CO2 and globally important.

    Dan J

  8. Wells says:

    The only coal export facility with half a chance are the Port Morrow and Westward. All the others tie up the main railway lines. I’m curious to know if this powder coal is better for manufacturing steel, just in case our corporate masters admit the railway lines need extensive upgrading.

    • Eric de Place says:

      Powder River Basin coal cannot be used to manufacture steel. It’s a much lower-grade and lower-energy coal that can only be used in electricity production.

  9. L.W. Brown says:

    Western coal, such as from the Poweder River Basin, is dirtier coal, not cleaner. Cleaner coal comes from the Eastern US, but is in limited supply and is more difficult to extract. Given the hostility to use of Western coal in the US, miners need foreign markets. However the coal is burned, even if well controlled, it will be bad. Shipping it, tho, will be even worse: dirty from the dust as it’s transported by rail, and from the oil, bilge-water, and other pollution of the cargo ships. These proposals add up to an enormous environmental disaster. In addition, history shows that anywhere from 80% to 90% of the costs for extra infrastructure needed to support or live with the export will be paid for by citizens, not the companies getting the profits.

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