The Northwest could be set to become a major coal exporter in the next few years. A single terminal facility proposed for Longview, Washington will have the capacity to export 5.7 million tons of coal annually, coal originating in the Powder River Basin that will be shipped to China. That sounds like a lot, but is it?

Yes. It’s a climate disaster waiting to happen.

When burned, that much coal will release about 10.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s the same amount of greenhouse gases as the annual emissions from 2.3 million cars — as if we were doubling the number of vehicles in all of eastern Washington and southwest Washington. It’s likely to produce a bit more than the coal-fired power plant at Centralia, currently the largest single source of emissions in the State of Washington.

And CO2 is hardly the only problem. Burned in Chinese power plants, the coal Washington exports every year will emit untold tons of nitrogen-oxide, which contributes to smog and other unhealthy air pollution. It will release hundreds of pounds of mercury, much of which will likely drift back over the Pacific Ocean to settle in lakes, contaminate fish, and threaten the developing brains of the Northwest’s children.

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  • What’s worse, the export facility at Longview is only the tip of the (melting) iceberg. Additional, larger, facilities are being scoped out for other Columbia River ports, including Portland, Vancouver, Woodland, and elsewhere.

    Plus, the AP has reported that:

    [Governor] Chris Gregoire so far has avoided the coal export debate. Spokeswoman Karina Shagren said Tuesday that Gregoire is balancing the need for economic growth against environmental concerns.

    “The governor will be working with her agencies on balanced regulatory decisions – and until those decisions are made, she doesn’t lean strongly one way or the other,” Shagren said.



    Notes: My calculations assume that Powder River Basin coal generates 8,500 BTUs per pound, and that 1 million BTUs produces 212.7 pounds of CO2. Comparisons to vehicle emissions assume that cars travel an average of 11,000 miles per year, average 22 miles per gallon of gasoline, and that each gallon of gasoline produces, on average, 19.6 pounds of CO2 when combusted. Further comparisons are available in my blog post, “Centralia’s Coal Emissions in Context.”

    For more information, check out the Oregonian’s Scott Learn who is providing stellar coverage of coal export developments. See here, here, here, and here. Also see this article by Craig Welch at the Seattle Times.