Alyssa Battistoni writes: Coal is without question our dirtiest fuel source: When burned, it dumps toxins like mercury and nitrogen oxides into the air and packs an outsize punch when it comes to carbon emissions. Since America has a lot of it, though, we’ve tended to use a lot: Historically, around half our electricity has been generated by coal combustion plants. But as a result of sustained anti-coal activism, low prices for natural gas, and new EPA regulations on power plant emissions, Americans are using a lot less coal than we used to, and the future of the sooty stuff in this country is looking dim. So the U.S. coal industry is pinning its hopes on China. While historically most of our exported coal has gone to Europe, U.S. exports to China increased 176 percent between 2009 and 2010, and that number is likely to keep rising as the Asian market for coal continues to expand. The prospect of shipping coal across the Pacific is even more appealing considering that Western states like Wyoming and Montana have vast coal reserves in the Powder River Basin, one of the largest coal deposits in the world.
But while the incentives to drastically scale up Western-mined, Asia-bound coal exports exist, the infrastructure to do so does not — at least, not yet. Coal mining companies are hoping to change that by building up to six coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest — three apiece in Washington and Oregon — with the combined capacity to ship around 150 million short tons of coal to Asia each year. These new plans would more than double 107 million short tons of coal the U.S. exported in 2011.
But good news for the coal industry is bad news for the climate, and whether Powder Basin coal is burned here or abroad, it’ll add the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions to an already-warming atmosphere. [Continue reading…]