Keystone XL gets the attention, but US coal export plan raises alarm

US coal producers hoped to gain access to Asian markets through BC until proposed Surrey export terminal nixed.

WASHINGTON – With TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline dominating environmental debate in the US, efforts by America’s struggling coal industry to boost coal exports to Asia have flown largely under the public’s radar.

Freight trains almost two kilometres long are already hauling coal from Montana and Wyoming to the Pacific Northwest, where it’s then shipped to energy-hungry Asian nations that have few qualms about burning the maligned fossil fuel.

The $40-billion US coal industry is hoping to ship even more coal to Asia depending on the fate of three more coal export terminals proposed for Oregon and Washington state. The industry has been reeling in the face of a steep decline in domestic coal consumption caused by both an abundance of cheaper natural gas and increasingly strict federal environmental regulations.

“For every million tons of US coal exported, an estimated 1,320 total jobs are added to the US economy,” Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association, told a recent congressional hearing into energy and power as he made a pitch for approval of the terminals.

Quinn even praised Stephen Harper in his testimony to US lawmakers, saying the Canadian prime minister’s so-called “one project, one review” initiative aimed at streamlining the permit process for new industrial projects provides “greater certainty, reliability and efficiency.”

But exporting American coal overseas is an undertaking with the potential to result in a far greater increase in global greenhouse gas emissions than Alberta’s oilsands and the Keystone XL pipeline.

Greenpeace, in fact, ranked efforts to increase US coal exports to Asia by as much as 190 million tonnes a year as the third most harmful project in the world in terms of carbon emissions. Alberta’s oilsands ranked fifth.

“This would add 420 million tonnes of CO2 a year to global emissions before 2020; more than the entire CO2 emissions from fossil fuels in Brazil in 2010,” the January report found.

The story has a Canadian angle, with US coal manufacturers dealt a blow last month when Metro Vancouver’s board nixed a proposed new coal export terminal in Surrey, BC. Port Metro Vancouver is already the No. 2 coal exporter in North America, and American coal producers were hoping to gain further access to Asian markets via Surrey.

Members of the board voted 21-4 to oppose the terminal, where American thermal coal would have been reloaded from trains to barges for shipment to Asia. Twenty-five Canadian jobs would have been created by the proposed $15 milliion terminal.

The arguments made against the terminal by Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan were remarkably similar to the ones made against Keystone XL by American opponents of the pipeline.

“I’m not an opponent of the coal industry in Canada,” Corrigan said. “But the issue is taking coal from the US – bad coal, the most difficult coal, the cheapest coal – bringing it into Canada, processing it twice through our ports, taking all of the environmental risks for none of the real benefits, and in the end of it we get 25 jobs.”

Keystone XL would transport millions of barrels a week of carbon-intensive Alberta oilsands bitumen through six US states to refineries on the Gulf Coast. Pipeline foes accuse its proponents of wildly exaggerating their job creation claims; the US State Department says only 35 permanent jobs would result from the pipeline.

Despite the Surrey setback, there was some good news for coal producers in recent weeks when the US Army Corps of Engineers – the federal agency that oversees the country’s public works – said it had no plans to review the broader climate-change impacts of the proposed facilities in Oregon and Washington state.

©The Canadian Press