First, a historical parallel: The US tobacco industry, during the late 1990s, targeted children in underdeveloped parts of the world — South America, Asia, and the middle-East — with a particularly abhorrent marketing program: they gave away free cigarettes to children in order to introduce them to smoking at an early age. At the same time, such practices were strictly banned in the United States. (See NYTimes, August 24, 2001).
Today, the coal industry — with the support of the Obama administration — is following a similar unethical practice as the cigarette exporters of the past. With complete disregard to global public health and climate implications, US coal exports doubled from 2000 to 2010 at the same time that domestic US consumption diminished. In 2012, the US exported 114 million metric tons of coal — a new record, more than 12 percent more than the previous high set in 1981. This, at a time when global atmospheric levels of CO2 have reached levels never before seen in human history.
Many consider coal energy to be the single greatest threat facing our climate, and with good reason: coal-fired plants are the biggest source of man-made CO2 emissions. A third of all carbon dioxide emissions come from burning coal. It’s used to produce nearly 40 percent of the world’s power. As such, the Center for Biological Diversity calls coal “the worst of the worst” among all climate polluters, emitting “more CO2 than any other fossil fuel when it’s burned.”
Any discussion of climate change from greenhouse gas emissions begins with the historical legacy of coal burning. Coal burning was the genesis of our current emissions-based climate crisis.
“I can’t understand why there aren’t rings of young people blocking bulldozers and preventing them from constructing coal-fired power plants.” — Al Gore
Why, then, are we exporting this most intensive of all carbon-burning sources?
The reasons lie in the ethically apathetic rules of free-market economics.
US coal exports today are driven by the rise of natural gas as a cheaper alternative domestic energy source (never mind the benzene, arsenic, and methane). With domestic use declining, the industry needs new markets for its reserves if it is to survive.
And the reserves are vast indeed: the US has more proven coal reserves than any other country in the world.
Enter the emerging, huge new markets in China and India — and parts of Europe. These ‘market realities’ have caused the International Energy Agency to forecast that coal will rival oil as the world’s top primary energy source by 2017. Contrary to any notion of climate ‘sense,’ the World Resources Institute found that more than 1,100 coal-fired power plants are currently being proposed for development globally.
The US coal industry — along with its supporters in the White House and Congress — sees the growing market, and nothing else. It is both ignorant and apathetic about the immense climate implications of it’s exporting practices. The market dictates.
“The market” — however attractive it may look to the millionaire bottom lines — is no match for the rules of physics.
This month, when global concentrations of CO2 were recorded at 400 parts per million — a level ‘never-before seen in human history‘ — the global scientific community repeated its calls, with newfound urgency, for a dramatic reduction of fossil fuel emissions.
It is nothing less than absurd, then — and grossly irresponsible to future generations — to be expanding the global use of this climate-killing, “worst of the worst,” 19th century technical invention through increased exports.
Meanwhile, behind his lofty environmental public statements, President Obama is actively supporting these coal exports. Last year, his administration approved some $100 million in loan guarantees to US coal exports — the first such loan guarantees for coal exports since the Bush administration.
It’s not overly dramatic, nor fear mongering, to label this as a climate crime of the highest order — not at this historic environmental juncture. Yet, to the dismay of many, President Obama continues to support such exports — rendering meaningless his frequent public pledges to “protect future generations” from climate change.