WyoFile Energy Report

Lubnau: Children might die without Wyoming coal exports

— May 23, 2013

In his testimony to a legislative committee last week regarding the coal mining industry’s ambition to boost exports to Asia, Gillette attorney and Wyoming Speaker of the House Tom Lubnau made several bold claims.

Dustin Bleizeffer
Dustin Bleizeffer

Coal companies in Wyoming badly want more access to the growing global coal market as coal loses favor in the U.S. to a flush supply of natural gas. No disagreement there. But Lubnau said that not only will the global use of coal continue to grow no matter what the United States does with its own supply, but coal will serve as a lifeline to millions of impoverished people who currently live without reliable or affordable electricity.

“So when you say, ‘don’t use energy and the cheapest available energy,’ what you’re saying is, ‘decrease your lifespan and let your children die,’” Lubnau told the Joint Minerals and Economic Development Interim Committee.

Lubnau added that the pathway to cleaner technologies requires increased access to energy. He said, “Cleaning up the environment will take more energy, not less.”

There’s some small truth to these claims. But there’s more to the story.

It’s true that Powder River Basin (PRB) coal has an advantage in its lower sulfur content, but it certainly doesn’t mean that children will die for failure of exporting more Wyoming coal. And the environmental advantages we can gain through access to energy do not rely specifically on burning more coal.

The impoverished regions of the world that desperately need electricity for clean water and better agriculture are going to get it in small packages of native renewable sources of energy — yes, solar and wind. If you believe that China is going to connect poor, rural areas of the country to a fleet of shiny new emissions-controlled Powder River Basin coal-burning power plants, then I have a power plant right here in Wyoming that I want to sell you. It’s called The Third Elk.

And take, for example, the fact that BP America equips a lot of its natural gas production facilities in Wamsutter with solar panels. I’ve even seen solar panels attached to Halliburton equipment in Wyoming. They would much rather rely on small, mobile sources of electricity than tap into the electrical grid.

The Diji Castle in Shanxi Province China is shrouded in pollution. The castle has a beige appearance from soot, but is built out of black rock that shines when it's wiped clean. (Courtesy Olivia Meigs)
Some cities in Shanxi Province China — a major coal-producing region — are often shrouded in pollution. (Courtesy Olivia Meigs)

Cutting through the PRB fog

While PRB coal has a low sulphur content compared to other U.S. coals, that environmental and human health advantage is mostly lost due to its lower Btu — or heating value. Power plants that burn PRB coal typically burn more tons of coal to get the same energy output as plants that burn higher Btu coals. While PRB coal has fewer SO2 emissions per-ton, you get about the same SO2 emissions as you do from other coals because you burn more PRB coal.

Asian utilities already have access to low-sulfur coals from Indonesia and Australia. Besides, SO2 emissions are not much of a factor in the human health and environment equation, here. Most modern coal-fired power plants in Asia have SO2 controls, and the growing fleet of coal-fired power plants in that region of the world — especially in China — generally emit fewer pollutants than the aging fleet in the United States, according to the International Energy Agency.

Perhaps cutting PRB coal from U.S. plants and sending it to Asia would be an environmental improvement after all! But that’s not the whole story, either.

While PRB coal has a so-called low sulfur content advantage (which turns out isn’t much of a factor these days), it is higher in mercury. Much of the mercury deposition in the Western United States comes from burning coal in Asia. Getting Asian power plants dialed-in to high-mercury PRB coal without assurances of mercury scrubbing controls would further pollute our waters and poison our fish and our citizens.

Coal dependency

The bigger issue is greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, which has much more serious and far-reaching environmental and human health implications.

It doesn’t matter where PRB coal is burned because nobody is capturing CO2 from it. Those few signature facilities in China that do capture CO2 are negligible on the world scale of coal combustion. The overriding criticism of PRB coal exports is the same as the argument against the Keystone XL pipeline: it perpetuates reliance on an infrastructure that burns fossil fuels without greenhouse gas emission controls.

This plant in Jincheng China is the largest methane gas-fired power plant in the world. The methane is harvested from local underground coal mines. (Courtesy Olivia Meigs)
This plant in Jincheng China is the largest methane gas-fired power plant in the world. The methane is harvested from local underground coal mines. (Courtesy Olivia Meigs)

Getting Asia hooked on cheaply produced PRB coal would delay the development of more efficient and lower greenhouse gas emission energy resources. From a climate change standpoint, why would the world’s most influential nation encourage developing countries to repeat our own Victorian Age model that built the American industrial revolution? That’s only a tantalizing prospect if you’re not concerned about climate change and you have access to vast amounts of cheap coal. In other words, if you’re Arch Coal, Peabody Energy and Cloud Peak Energy, or an elected official indebted to Arch, Peabody or Cloud Peak.

When I first heard of the prospect for PRB coal exports a few years ago I thought of a more dangerous scenario for coal-based carbon emissions: What if Union Pacific and BNSF Railway helped China build a PRB-style rail system from coal-rich inner China to the highly populated coastal regions? China would have plenty of home-based coal to burn for decades, likely boosting greenhouse gas emissions, and it would come from underground mining districts that frequently kill dozens of workers.

But a colleague of mine who is familiar with China and energy matters reminded me that China will sooner develop hydraulic fracturing to unlock its own massive shale gas reserves before that high-capacity coal rail scenario might play out.

So where does that leave coal mining-dependent Wyoming? For those of us who are concerned about climate change and about greenhouse gas emissions from coal, it’s not enough to only poo-poo PRB coal exports. At $1 billion in annual revenue to state and local governments, Wyoming is dangerously reliant on a commodity driven by policies and markets outside our state’s borders. Perhaps our 400 million tons per year mining industry is living on borrowed time — 10 years, perhaps 25 years — even if coal proponents do manage to increase exports to Asia.

We should take seriously Gov. Matt Mead’s freshly-printed Wyoming energy plan and his promise to promote all forms of Wyoming energy — fossil fuels, nuclear and renewable — while maximizing energy efficiency and curbing emissions. This plan, if Wyoming officials are forced to be genuine about what’s printed in it, is a far more reasonable approach than to suggest that children will die for lack of burning more PRB coal.

But the plan, so far, is lacking one critical initiative if Mead is genuine about preserving our assets in wildlife and outdoor recreation: Wyoming should concern itself with greenhouse gas emissions as it relates to climate change. That would require admitting that, maybe, our 400 million tons of coal per year mining industry isn’t sustainable. Our current slate of elected officials do not have the courage to imagine a coal industry that produces only 300 million tons or 250 million tons annually, and that’s why we will continue hearing statements of denial about coal’s role in climate change from those who are supposed to be leaders.

— Dustin Bleizeffer is WyoFile editor-in-chief and a former Powder River Basin coal miner. He has written about Wyoming’s energy industries for 15 years. You can reach him at (307) 577-6069 or email dustin@wyofile.com. Follow Dustin on Twitter at @DBleizeffer

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Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. Lousewort—you sound on paper as being a climate change skeptic/ outright denier. You say it in so many words : dead certain that the science of climate change is ‘ rotten ‘.

    Are you and Lubnau willing to bet the planet on that ?

    Hint: check the regress of glaciers in the Wind Rivers , then watch online the excellent NOVA episode entitled ” Earth From Space “. Don’t be afraid to see for yourself, or learn stuff. There is plenty of evidence fr climate change all around us in Wyoming, if you’ll only take the time to see it. It shows up as well here as it does in the Arctic/Antarctic.

  2. Earlier this month, a New York Times article by Andy Revkin voiced concern over a gap between “the consensus” of climate scientists and public acceptance of the theory of human-caused global warming. Revkin pointed to a study published in April by Dr. John Cook and other researchers, which claimed that 97 percent of scientific papers over the last decade “endorsed the consensus” of man-made warming. But is it a failure to communicate the science to the public, or a case of bad science?

    A 2010 paper from the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University recommended that advocates for activist climate policies emphasize the dangers to the health of citizens: “Successfully reframing the climate debate in the United States from one based on environmental values to one based on health values…holds great promise to help American society better understand and appreciate the risks of climate change…” So, if Americans fear for their health, then they’ll more readily accept that humans are causing dangerous climate change?

    Climate science has smelled for some time. The 2001 Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) announced “new evidence” claiming that “the increase in temperature in the 20th century was likely to have been the largest of any century during the past 1,000 years.” This was the famous “Hockey Stick Curve” of Dr. Michael Mann, which became an icon for Climatism, trumpeted to the world and taught in schools across the globe.

    But the tree-ring data used by Mann and his research team did not show a temperature rise at the end of the 20th century, so they pasted the thermometer record for the last 50 years onto the 1,000-year curve to provide the alarming hockey stick temperature rise. Later analysis by Stephen McIntyre and Dr. Ross McKitrick found that the Mann algorithm would also produce a hockey stick from input of random noise. The IPCC dropped the Mann Curve from their 2007 Fourth Assessment Report without any explanation.

    Then in November 2009 came Climategate, the release of e-mails from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at East Anglia University. An unidentified hacker or whistle-blower downloaded more than 1,000 documents and e-mails and posted them on a server in Russia. The CRU is the recognized leading keeper of global temperature data, and CRU scientists wrote and edited the core of the IPCC reports.

    The Climategate emails showed CRU practices that were seriously at odds with accepted scientific procedure. Evidence of bias, data manipulation, deliberate deletion of emails to avoid sharing of information, evasion of freedom of information requests, and attempts to subvert the peer-review literature process were all used to further the cause of human-made global warming.

    Based on model projections, the IPCC First Assessment Report of 1990 told the world to expect a “best estimate” rise of 0.3oC per decade in global temperatures, leading to 2025 temperatures that would be 1oC higher than 1990 temperatures. The IPCC also projected a “high estimate” and a “low estimate” rise. Today, global temperatures remain well below the IPCC’s low estimate. Contrary to model projections, temperatures have been flat for the last 15 years.

    It doesn’t matter if 97 percent or even 100 percent of published papers endorse the consensus of man-made warming. One hundred percent of the world’s top climate models, 44 models in all, projected a rise in global surface temperatures over the last 15 years. And 100 percent of the climate models were wrong. The empirical data does not support the theory of dangerous man-made climate change.

    Since global temperatures are not rising, proponents of man-made climate change are now reduced to weather scaremongering. In the best tradition of ambulance chasing, the recent severe tornado in Oklahoma, Hurricane Sandy, and other weather events are blamed on mankind’s relatively small contribution to atmospheric carbon dioxide, a trace gas.

    But any citizen who can read can learn that today’s weather is not abnormal. Hurricane Sandy was a Category 1 hurricane that made a direct hit on New York City. But according to the National Climatic Data Center, 170 hurricanes made US landfall during the 20th century. Fifty-nine of these were Category 3 or better, with wind speeds much stronger than those of Sandy. So how is a single Category 1 hurricane “evidence” of dangerous climate change? Historical data also shows that the US experienced more strong tornados in the 1960s and 1970s than today.

    The reason for lukewarm public acceptance of the theory of man-made warming is not a failure to communicate, but that the science is rotten.

  3. From the Washington Times, idiocy only bureaucrats could muster:

    “Since man first rubbed a pair of sticks together to make a fire, we’ve gathered around a campfire to cook food, enjoy good company and bask in the warmth of the glowing embers. Now the green spoilsports in Southern California want to take that all way, sending beach ring fire pits the way of the caveman.
    The South Coast Air Quality Management District will decide this summer whether to order the removal of 850 bonfire pits from Los Angeles and Orange county beaches on the pretense that fire is bad for the environment. To support its position, the agency concocted a study concluding that an evening beach fire creates as much particulate matter pollution as a diesel truck driving 564 miles

    Man’s taming of fire enabled him to cook his food, bring light to the darkness, make stronger tools and survive the harshest of winters. It’s the one discovery upon which all civilizations are built. The assault on bonfires, fireplaces and stoves undermines one of the cornerstones of society. It’s what happens when government gets big enough to snuff out man’s greatest achievement.”

  4. I just posted this article on the North Portland Coal Committee’s FB page. It is vital that people fight the coal exports from the mine to the proposed export terminals, and all along the route. Excellent article with good information about coal and markets. But the most important thing said is that our leaders don’t courage. A few have stepped up to the plate but most haven’t.

  5. Lubnau honestly said that children will die if we don’t ship Wyoming coal to their community? What about all the children who already do succumb to coal ? Coal has always been a killer …that’s part of its inherent nature ; the nature of the Beast. Burning coal shortens lives, kills folks in myriad ways, its byproducts being wholly hostile to the environment; contrabiotic even. Mercury is bad enough , but coal releases other Heavy metals. Fly ash is horrible stuff. There are harmful emissions, even radioactive releases. A third of all people worldwide who die of respiratory ailments are directly victim of coal. Then we can talk about the adverse effects to water resources, wildlife, and plants.

    I’m sorry , but Lubnau does not pull off the role of Compassionate Conservative well at all. His face is covered in soot.

  6. Great article (as always). In case there is any doubt about the health risks associated with coal, one need look no further than a Harvard study (http://chge.med.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/resources/MiningCoalMountingCosts.pdf) which showed that in Appalachia, the annual public health burden from burning coal is $74.6 billion (yes billion) and annual impacts from mercury range from a low of $414 million to $29.3 billion. The Chinese are certainly aware of these risks even if our own decision-makers are not. Our best efforts should be put into IGCC, CCUS, and applied research at UW SER (funded by government and industry) so that we can finally make a meaningful difference in how coal is used and its impacts diminished. We can’t shift our carbon/mercury/SO2 footprint to a different time zone and imagine we’ve accomplished anything.