The Environmental Fight That is More Important Than Keystone XL That Nobody is Talking About

Editor's note: This story is part of PolicyMic's Millennials Take On Climate Change series this week.

Whether you attribute King Coal's decline to EPA regulations, the campaigning of environmental groups, or the proliferation of cheap natural gas (hint: it’s the last one), our dirtiest fuel source is on its way out.

Just six years ago, coal was the source of 49% percent of our country’s power, but today it provides just 37% percent and falling. President Obama’s new climate plan, which will regulate the emissions of existing coal-fired power plants, should push coal a little closer to the door.

But don’t go celebrating the coup just yet. Like all despots on the ropes, King Coal has an escape route.

Most people associate coal production with Appalachia, but these days America’s biggest coal mines are in the Powder River Basin, a 200-mile seam that spans Montana and Wyoming and supplies close to 500 million tons per year. Mining companies dig up so much Powder River Basin coal that it’s the United States’ single biggest contribution to climate change, approaching a billion tons of CO2 per year — over five times more emissions than the Keystone XL pipeline would likely lead to.

If domestic coal burning continues to decline, where are all those black rocks going to end up? Coal companies hope that the answer lies overseas. That’s why they’re currently pushing to expand mining in the PRB, in hopes of eventually exporting up to 200 million tons to China and India — energy-hungry countries whose breakneck development exceeds the capacity of their own mines.

Coal contains more greenhouse gases than any other fossil fuel, and a ton of coal burned in China has the same impact on the climate as a ton burned in Indiana. If the United States is actually waging a war on coal, as coal advocates claim, allowing the stuff to be mined and exported in prodigious quantities is a pretty self-sabotaging way to go about it.

And while China and India certainly deserve the same shot at development that the U.S. enjoyed, coal is literally killing them: As the New York Times recently reported, Chinese in the country’s coal-dense north live five years shorter than their counterparts in the south. (To be sure, Powder River Basin coal is much lower in sulfur than coal from Appalachia and China, and so less detrimental to public health. Nonetheless, as University of Montana economics professor Thomas Power told OnEarth Magazine in 2011, coal exports from PRB would reduce China’s incentives to invest in forms of energy that are actually clean.)  

Will the coal industry succeed in massively expanding exports? The federal government won’t stop them. As Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) pointed out to The Nation earlier this month, coal companies received more leases in the Power River Basin during Obama’s first term than during George W. Bush’s.

What’s more, the Bureau of Land Management, the agency that grants those leases, doesn’t technically consider the PRB a “coal production region,” thereby allowing companies to purchase the rights to mine via non-competitive application instead of auction and costing taxpayers billions. (You read that correctly: the biggest coal production region in America isn’t an official coal production region. Somebody should probably look into that.)

If coal exports are going to be blocked, therefore, it’s going to be local activists who block them. To get to China, coal has to be shipped by train from the Powder River Basin to ports on the West Coast— and Pacific Northwesterners aren’t too thrilled about the prospect of thousands of mile-long coal trains rumbling through their backyards. Call them crazy, but for some reason they don’t appreciate inhaling the hundreds of pounds of coal dust that fly off each train car.     

The Achilles’ heel for coal shipment might prove to be its reliance on the construction of new export terminals: enormous, potentially dirty projects that have drawn the ire of everyone from farmers to public health officials. Public opposition has already scuttled three proposed terminals, and the remaining three, like Ambre Energy’s Port of Morrow project, which would ship up to 8.8 million tons per year, face fierce protests.

Right now, a coalition of activists is standing between the world’s hungriest energy market and America’s largest carbon bomb. As Zoe Carpenter wrote in The Nation earlier this month, President Obama could get involved by asking government agencies to account for the complete environmental impacts of coal export — i.e., with carbon emissions and climate change included — in their assessments. Until that happens (and don’t hold your breath), the coal terminal battle remains in the hands of state and local governments. A few Northwestern communities could help decide the trajectory of our planet’s climate, and we should all be paying attention.    

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