Wayne O’Leary

Deadly Cargoes

The US trade deficit, long a concern to American policymakers, fell in 2007 for the first time in six years. That’s the good news. The bad news is that a significant reason for the drop was the sudden boom in American coal exports, which grew in value last year by 19%—to $4.1 billion.

This country is working to solve its trade deficit, in other words, by marketing one of the most environmentally harmful products in the world and contributing in no small measure to planetary climate change caused by carbon emissions.

We are not the only guilty party. Consumption of coal is up around the globe; it’s grown by 30% since 2002, twice as fast as any other energy source. The main reason: More underdeveloped nations are connecting to the electricity grid, and coal is the premier fuel powering electrical plants.

China and India, fast industrializing and modernizing, are building power plants at a record pace, and neither can meet its growing need for carbon-based fuel with domestic resources alone. China is increasing its usage by 10% per year. For its part, India expects to import 51 million tons of coal by 2012 (to produce 76,000 megawatts of power) and 136 million tons by 2022, according to a recent analysis.

Nor is the insatiable consumption only a Third-World phenomenon. Modern Japan, in fact, is the single largest importer of coal (198 million tons in 2006). In the equally developed United Kingdom, coal is once again the leading fuel for electrical plants, surpassing oil and natural gas in 2003. In Germany, which has invested heavily in alternatives like wind and solar, coal is still the largest source of energy for utilities. And in the US, coal generates approximately half (52% in 2007) of the nation’s electricity.

The problem is that the new black gold—prices for power-plant coal are up from $18 per ton in 1999 to $50 per ton today—is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels to burn, far dirtier than oil. Coal accounts for a quarter of worldwide energy consumption, but generates nearly two-fifths of energy- related carbon dioxide. In addition, the Sierra Club reports that America’s 417 coal-burning power plants each emit 50 tons of toxic mercury every year. Says Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), an opponent of more coal-powered utilities in the US: “There’s not a coal-fired plant in America that’s clean. They’re all dirty.” Observing that China and India plan to build 850 such plants over the next several years, Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, further points out that those additions alone will produce air pollution five times the potential savings of implementing the Kyoto Treaty.

At home, Americans are faced with their own inconvenient truth: the uncontrolled national appetite for more and more electricity to run computers and other plugged-in devices is severely degrading the domestic environment. Earlier this year, the Washington Post revealed that total coal purchases of electric utilities in the Washington, D.C. area rose by 40% between 2004 and 2006, a direct result of population growth and “an increasingly wired culture.” Moreover, most of the bituminous coal used to service the District of Columbia’s power needs was, investigators discovered, a product of Appalachian surface mining, the very worst kind.

Surface or strip mining—scraping away layers of earth and rock with giant machines to access coal deposits—has become the mining industry’s technique du jour in present-day America, replacing less disruptive, but slower, harder and more labor-intensive underground mining. The process began in the plateau regions of the Far West several decades ago and migrated east to Appalachia in the late 1980s, where it took on a particularly virulent form. Eastern surface mining employs a method called “mountaintop removal”—literally the leveling of mountains in high-elevation places like West Virginia. Besides the creation of a desolate terrain resembling Mars, by-products include the loss of thousands of acres of forest in site preparation, the destruction of countless rivers and streams through debris waste and toxic chemicals, and the displacement of homes and settlements viewed as barriers to industrial progress.

It should come as no surprise that officials of the Bush administration, the most environmentally insensitive stewards of the federal government in modern history, have little concern with coal’s downside. The resurgence of mountaintop removal (temporarily stalled in the late 1990s because of protests and lawsuits) owes much to Bush-inspired changes in environmental rules allowing debris waste to be reclassified as “fill” and dumped into streambeds. The administration has also dropped pending plans requiring coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, gutted proposed rules regulating mining-generated substances such as coal dust, and downgraded the “hazardous” classification of mercury pollution emitted by coal- burning utilities.

Campaign contributions had a lot to do with this industry-friendly stance; coal companies gave 88 percent of their political donations in 2000 to the GOP. The quid pro quo was a “balanced” energy policy friendly to Big Coal. Vice President Cheney’s 2001 energy task force called for a greater reliance on coal in generating utility power and an increased investment in purportedly cleaner ways of burning it; the focus throughout was not on reducing demand, but on expanding supply.

The upshot is that the US remains, after China, the second-largest producer and consumer of coal in the world and, increasingly, one of its largest exporters after Australia and Indonesia, dubious distinctions in the era of international demands to reduce greenhouse gases. It all comes down to economics: Coal is presently cheaper than other readily available power sources, such as oil and natural gas; and it’s less capital-intensive than hydropower, with its massive dams, or nuclear power, with its complex and problematic infrastructure.

If US policy remains geared to encouraging the wasteful consumption of electrical energy at home and to exporting our consumptive way of life to formerly agrarian countries like China and India (in order to benefit American corporations seeking low-cost outsourcing partners and industrial suppliers overseas), the demand for coal will only grow, and those deadly cargoes will continue to cross the world’s oceans. Globalization and modernization come with a price, and it’s not just in dollars.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two books.

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2008

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