Thursday, April 19, 2012


There are presently a number of proposals in the works to export coal and liquified natural gas (LNG) from the United States to overseas markets. Some of these export facilities are proposed for the lower Columbia River on both the Oregon and Washington sides.  It was only a few years ago that there were at least 3 proposed facilities in Oregon to import LNG; however, the development of new natural gas sources in Canada using the technique of fracking (fracturing shale rock formations deep underground to release gas) has resulted in an abundant supply of cheap natural gas. The demand for natural gas in places like Japan and China makes exporting it from here a lucrative endeavor.

While there is plenty of opposition to building LNG plants here (whether for export or import), the prospect of shipping coal from lower Columbia River ports is really getting a lot of opposition and media play. The reasons given for opposing coal export are primarily environmental concerns and disruptions of local traffic and communities caused by mile-long trains from the coal fields of Montana to lower river ports. One of the primary stated environmental concerns is that we are trying to reduce the burning of coal to produce electricity in the USA in order to combat global climate change, so why would we export it so it can be burned in China? This seems to be the over-arching reason for opposing coal exports. Other reasons include the potential effects of coal dust from open train cars on human health and fish and wildlife, and issues of environmental justice.

But I wonder if this is as simple as some want it to appear. I'm not taking sides on this one yet because I think the topic needs a lot of thought first. So for the sake of discussion, let me lay out a few reasons why we might want to export coal.

1. China's growing economy demands greater production of electricity to power the existing and future factories where domestic and export goods are made. Keep in mind that the US demand for computer and other home electronics, sport shoes and many other commodities is a main driver for Chinese industrial expansion. The Chinese government is trying to reduce the carbon footprint of it's industrial base, and one way to do this is to import relatively clean (i.e. low-sulfur, high BTU) coal from the Montana coal fields and reduce the use of their domestic dirty coal. We need to do the math on this to determine if the carbon footprint of mining and shipping coal from the USA to China is a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions when compared to the life-cycle of the Chinese using their own coal.

2.  In the present economic environment, increased mining and exporting of coal from the US will create jobs and stimulate some local economies.

3. Alternative methods of shipping and handling coal, in covered barges for example, could reduce the potential for harmful environmental and human health impacts, traffic disruptions, and other impacts to communities along rail lines.

For each of the above reasons, and many others, there are opposing arguments.

I'm always interested in why some topics get a lot of play in the public arena while others remain off the public radar. Exporting coal is a hot topic right now, but let me present another similar topic that I'm sure most of us have never considered: the global impact of exporting animal feed from the USA.

Below is a table that shows containerized cargo exports (and imports) from the lower Columbia River ports. The number one containerized export is hay and animal feed, representing 32% of containerized exports and weighing in at 615,400 metric tons (1 metric ton = 2,205 pounds) annually (I'm not sure what year is represented in these data).


This really surprised me. But so what? Well, an article in the NY Times (2008) examined the real cost of growing animals for food, which is increasingly done in factory-type operations.

Global demand for meat has multiplied in recent years, encouraged by growing affluence and nourished by the proliferation of huge, confined animal feeding operations. These assembly-line meat factories consume enormous amounts of energy, pollute water supplies, generate significant greenhouse gases and require ever-increasing amounts of corn, soy and other grains, a dependency that has led to the destruction of vast swaths of the world’s tropical rain forests.

The author cites estimates that about 30% of the ice-free land on this planet is involved in meat production, and this generates almost 1/5th of the world's greenhouse gases - more than transportation sources. US agriculture, which is increasingly dominated by growing livestock feed, is estimated by the USEPA to be responsible for about 3/4 of the water quality problems in our rivers and streams.

The social and environmental justice impacts are also high due not only to the environmental impacts cited above, but by the demand and high price for corn and soy for growing meat that makes it less available as food for people, particularly in developing nations.

Shall I continue? No, I think it best for you to read the article yourself. My point is that I have never heard anyone opposing the export of hay and animal feed from the lower Columbia River ports, even though these exports directly support livestock operations overseas that have very real and very high environmental, human health and social justice impacts.

As you can tell, I like to examine all facets of a topic before leaping to a conclusion. Perhaps this is a result of my years spent as an ecological consultant, during which I worked on a large variety of projects, even one of the LNG terminals on the lower Columbia River (as part of the team hired by the company proposing to build the facility). Doing the research needed to plan a development, or even to write an ordinance to protect natural resources (I've done a lot of those, also) requires looking at a lot of alternatives, including not doing the project at all, and then making a reasoned selection of the best alternative. The selected alternative is not necessary the one that every side wants - but it rarely can be.

So, as you chew your steak, chop or chicken leg tonight, think about the above - maybe you'll start eating coal instead!


  1. Paul,

    Can we (in the spirit of security expert, Bruce Schneier) coin the term "green theater"?

    Edmonds citizens are currently debating (i.e., yelling at each other) whether to and how to stop these coal trains from passing through. The main issues are emergency access to the waterfront, which includes the Senior Center, and the concern over coal dust. Your article convinced me that an overpass and effective dust suppression is a better goal than stopping the trains.

    I tweeted your post; two Edmonds Council Members follow me -- though the one I know best doesn't read my tweets.

  2. Speaking of green theater, a few years ago, Edmonds Council outlawed plastic-bag use in stores, though paper bags decompose into methane. Any thoughts on paper vs plastic bags?

  3. @gebloom - sorry for the delayed respinse - I'm not sure re: paper vs. plastic. There are cradle-to-grave (and probably cradle-to-cradle) studies out there. A number of similar issues are cloth vs. disposable diapers, gasolinbe vs. ethanol (corn-based) and others. Portland some years ago banned styrofoam take-out/left-over boxes in restaurants. So most restaurants switched to clear plastic containers - these can't be recycled in the City curbside program, so they go in the trash to the landfill. What was the point? Who knows, other than Green Theater.