Have you heard the one about the Australian company that wanted to ship coal from Wyoming to China through Washington?

coal train - Flickr KimonBerlinBut this one is no joke:  Ambre Energy, an Australian coal and oil-shale venture, recently obtained approval from Cowlitz County officials to set up a coal export facility at the Longview, WA port on the Columbia River.  Under Ambre’s plan, trains would carry over five million tons of coal each year to Longview, load it onto cargo ships, and ultimately sell it to feed China’s skyrocketing demand for coal-fired electric power.  When burned, the coal shipped through Longview will add about 9 million tons of carbon to the atmosphere.  (So much for Washington’s leadership on climate issues:  the coal sent through this one Washington terminal will release more carbon than the entire city of Seattle.  If you think that deserves a “yikes,” just wait:  several additional, larger coal terminals are on the drawing board.)

But the question that intrigued me about this whole situation was:  why Longview?  Why, of all ports, did the Ambre settle on this one?

The answer, as far as I can tell, comes down to cost:  shipping coal through Longview could save China, and the international coal conglomerate, a bunch of money.

Here’s why.

  • Powder River Basin (PRB) coal is dirt cheap.  In 2009, you could buy a ton of Wyoming coal for $11.72(“Dirt cheap” is no exaggeration.  A quick web search suggests that topsoil can run somewhere around $20 per ton.)

    There are two reasons why it’s so cheap.  First, as fossil fuels go, PRB coal is pretty thin stuff.  Burning a pound of the “sub-bituminous” coal from the Powder River Basin releases about 8,500 BTUs, about a third less energy per pound than the bituminous coals that are more commonly burned in Chinese power plants. 

    A second reason that PRB coal is cheap is that the costs of long-distance shipping can add up—and the Powder River Basin is (no offense!) way out in the boondocks.  As of 2001—the most recent data I could find—it cost about a penny to ship a ton of PRB coal one mile.  I imagine that those costs have risen with inflation; but even so, at a penny per mile, shipping PRB coal to Longview could cost nearly $10 per ton, and possibly significantly more.

    And then there’s the cost of international shipping.  It costs between $20,000 and $50,000 per day to lease a good-sized cargo vessel—a “Panamax” ship, which is largest size that can fit through the Panama canal, and also the largest ship that the other berths at the Longview port can handle.  A Panamax vessel can handle about 60,000-80,000 tons of cargo, and the trip from the Northwest to Shanghai takes about 12 days.  (This source suggests 11 days from Vancouver to Shanghai,  and this one says 13 days from Seattle to Shanghai.  Obviously, it all depends on how fast the boat travels, but I’m not sure what speed winds up being most economical at today’s fuel and boat rental costs.)

    So, all told, it costs at least $14 to ship a ton of coal  from the Powder River Basin to a Chinese port—and that’s excluding any handling costs in the ports themselves.  Then, when you factor in the low energy density of PRB coal, that’s the equivalent of about $20 per ton of the Chinese coal that it’s competing with.  And remember, this is a rock bottom estimate; transportation costs can be volatile, and if they spike to the high end of their historic range the transportation costs could rise north of $30 per ton.

    So, getting back to my original question:  why Longview?  Well, it’s simple.  Longview offers what is the lowest cost for getting PRB coal to China. 

    Even if other Northwest ports could handle the over 5 million tons of coal per year, most of them (save perhaps Portland) are farther away by rail.  Even an extra 100 miles of rail travel — the distance, roughly, from Longview to Tacoma—might significantly cut into Ambre’s profits.  When margins are thin, boosting costs by $1 per ton can make a huge difference to profitability.

    But imagine what would happen if Ambre couldn’t find a west coast terminal to ship its coal.  The next closest alternative would be Houston/Galveston:  an additional 600 miles or so by rail, compared with Longview, plus an extra 12 days by boat through the Panama Canal.  All told, shipping coal through Galveston rather than Longview would add a bare minimum of $11 per ton to transportation costs, and possibly much more.  And once again, adjusting for the relatively low energy-density of PRB coal, that $11 cost penalty translates into nearly $17 per ton of Chinese coal.  And on top of all that, with China seemingly committed to a strong-dollar/weak-yuan policy, that $17 may actually wind up being even more expensive to Chinese consumers, once exchange rates are factored in.

    So in short, if Ambre can’t find a Northwest port, shipping coal from Montana to China via Galveston would probably be a non-starter.  So it’s little wonder that international coal companies are so interested in finding a Northwest passage for Powder River Basin coal.


    [Coal train photo courtesy of Flickr user KimonBerlin, distributed under a Creative Commons license.]