By John Stark
Coal use in Asia will rise rapidly in the years ahead, even if the Chinese economy slumps and western governments succeed in enacting carbon tax measures, the International Energy Agency says in a new report.
Writing in his Dot Earth blog in the New York Times, Andrew Revkin sums things up bluntly:
“Anyone making the case that some magical application of a carbon price, in the United States or elsewhere, can ride to the rescue of the climate system is missing the primacy of real-time energy needs over long-term climate concerns,” Revkin writes.
Revkin is no climate-change denier. He goes on to suggest steps that could be taken to minimize the damage to the environment. But those steps are likely to be unpopular in some circles. As he sees it, attention should be focused on making coal-burning as efficient as possible, so that developing economies get the maximum amount of electric power for every ton of coal they burn.
Richard K. Morse, director of research on coal an d carbon markets at Stanford University’s Program on Energy and Sustainable Development, made the same exact point in an article in Foreign Affairs last August.
The full article is behind a paywall so I can’t link it all for you, but here is a key excerpt:
“Given how dominant coal is, one of the most promising ways to fight global warming is to make it emit less carbon dioxide, a solution that is less elusive than commonly thought. Merely installing the best available technologies in coal plants in the developing world could slash the volume of carbon dioxide released by billions of tons per year, doing more to reduce emissions on an annual basis than all the world’s wind, solar and geothermal power combined do today.”
Many months ago, I discussed Morse’s article with Eric dePlace of Sightline Institute, who has focused on environmental issues surrounding SSA Marine’s proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal coal export facility at Cherry Point.
“I agree with part of it,” dePlace said.
It is important to talk about ways to help the developing world produce energy more efficiently, and that could mean more efficient use of coal in the near-term. Coal-burning isn’t going to stop in the next 10 years, dePlace agrees.
But he is wary of energy policies that would lock Asian economies into long-term reliance on coal.
“Even the most efficient coal plant is not very efficient,” dePlace said, adding that money invested in retrofitting older, dirtier coal plants would be better-spent elsewhere.
“Getting a 40 percent reduction in coal emissions is not nearly adequate to the task,” dePlace said. “We need, as a world, to transition off coal in the next few decades … I’m far from convinced that investing in and thereby extending the life of existing coal plants would be the smartest thing to do with investors’ money.”
In his Foreign Affairs article, Morse says alternative forms of energy are much-preferred — and the Chinese are moving actively to develop them — but in some places, no alternatives are available.
“Critics may argue that financing any kind of coal is bad environmental policy,” Morse writes. “The calculus, however, is more complicated, and it depends on counterfactuals. In places where financing coal power would crowd out cleaner sources of energy, development banks should refrain from doing so. But much of the developing world, constrained by tight budgets and limited alternatives for large-scale power generation, faces a choice not between coal and renewable energy but between inefficient coal plants and efficient ones … Indulging in quixotic visions of a coal-free world is an incoherent and inadequate response to the problem of global warming.”
Does any of this have any bearing on the debate over Gateway Pacific? That is likely one of the issues that regulatory agencies will have to grapple with soon, as they make key decisions on the scope of the environmental impact statement.
For opponents of Gateway Pacific, it’s a no-brainer: Burning coal contributes to climate change, and Gateway Pacific would contribute to burning coal. Therefore, that issue must be a part of the environmental impact statement process, and in the likely event that there is no way to mitigate for the damage caused by burning the coal, the project should be denied.
But the IEA report and the arguments from people like Morse and Revkin raise some doubts. If China and India can’t get Powder River Basin coal from West Coast ports, will they burn less coal? Is there any way to get a solid answer to that question?
And if the answer is, “No, they will not burn any less coal,” does it follow that cashing in on the inevitable is good public policy for the county, the state and the region? Does it mean that the scope of the environmental impact statement and the required mitigation should be limited to more localized concerns, such as railroad impacts?
Eric dePlace recently produced this report on the PR firms involved in promoting Gateway Pacific. (The Seattle P-I-s Joel Connelly reports here on dePlace’s report, and gets reaction comments from some of the PR people involved.) Read a collection of dePlace’s reports on coal exports here.