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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dustin on Twitter at @DBleizeffer
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