I’ve finally had a chance to absorb the US EIA’s latest quarterly coal report, which takes us up through the middle of 2011. As I’ve shown before (here and here) coal exports in the West have had a volatile history. In this chart, you can see the last 15 years of quarterly data, complete with upward spikes in the last few quarters.
Keep in mind that these are Customs Districts, not ports. Seattle itself doesn’t export any coal, but the Seattle Customs District does move some volume via the rail crossing at Blaine, Washington as the coal makes its way from the Powder River Basin to BC’s Westshore Terminal for onward shipment to Asia.
So what’s new in the data? In the second quarter of 2011, about 1.4 million tons of coal were exported from the Seattle District. That was a 21 percent increase from the previous quarter, and a whopping 103 percent from the second quarter of 2010. Yet even at the current pace, 2011 coal exports from the Seattle District will only reach about 5.3 million tons — an order of magnitude smaller than what’s planned for Cherry Point.
For some perspective, here’s the same data plotted against the Cherry Point plans:
Find this article interesting? Support more research like this with a gift!
Coal companies argue that existing coal trains haven’t caused many problems (although there are plenty of northwest Washington residents who disagree). But it’s a silly argument: serving the Cherry Point terminal would mean multiplying existing coal trains by 10 times. Serving the Longview terminal too would mean multiplying them by 20 times.
The coal shipper’s argument is like saying that if you live on a street, you won’t mind living on a freeway. Coal exports may be up recently, but they’re nothing compared to what could be coming.
Coal exports from Los Angeles were up too, with almost a half million tons moving in the second quarter of 2011.
Interestingly, coal exports out of the Great Falls Customs District show up as a near goose egg. Despite rumors that coal shippers will use the Sweetgrass, Montana rail crossing to move coal north to Ridley Terminals at Prince Rupert, BC, there’s scant evidence of that actually happening. In all of 2010 and the first half of 2011 combined, a scant 14,000 tons of coal was reportedly shipped across the border at Sweetgrass.
It could be that Ridley-bound coal is moving instead via the Blaine crossing in the Seattle District (at least one test-run coal train has reportedly taken that route), or it could be that Ridley is just too far away, making it an uneconomic choice for coal companies.
Many thanks to Pam MacRae for research assistance.
The line north of SweetGrass was flooded by spring run-off thru June and July. The coal trains to Ridley were not suppose to start until around June. So your data will not show moves thru this Gateway. It will not be as much as Seattle but will almost certainly be more than 14000 tons. Also PRB coal is now moving thru the Great Lakes to European destinations…
Eric de Place
Thanks for the tip. I look forward to seeing the 3rd quarter numbers when they’re out, and I plan to write about them here.
PRB coal is also moving thru Texas from what I have been told, but export totals are probably mixed with Eastern Met Coal, Rocky Mountain coal and Illinois Coal…
I believe the Sweetgrass line reopened in July sometime…
The Sweetgrass line was open the third week of July, the CP is only taking one train a week cause of lack crews and major track work, so most of the coal going through Ridley is going through Vancouver BC.. I know this is the only going to busier and there is going to be nothing that can stop it. Eric I think the biggest issue I’ve got at this time is couple things. First, no matter how its sliced the PRB coal is the cleanest burning coal in the world, I know that the environmental position is to stop it from being mined completely. Now the reality is that isn’t going to happen. So there needs to be a comprise. Reading all these measurements of mercury or CO2 cause of what Asia is burning is kinda miss leading. If your going to try to convince me that the levels won’t go down if more PRB coal was used, your lying to people and so is the whole environmental movement. I’m tired of hearing about how coal trains will cause x amount of health risks. The fact is there hasn’t been any increase health issues over the last ten to fifteen years that PRB coal has been running through here. There also hasn’t been any health issues from locations that PRB coal has been running through over the last thirty years. So, quit using health issues as an excuse. Second issue. The two states of Washington and Oregon for in some serious buget problems, and have been since the timber industry was destroyed, there never was issues with schools getting money or a shortfall in the general fund like there has been the last 20 years. These coal export facilities would bring in some seriously needed funds to the state and local economies, along with some needed jobs to counties that haven’t recovered from the timber industry.
Eric de Place
First, I’m not “lying to people” to use your words. The coal companies are. We’ve addressed the environmental concerns and “additionality” concerns so many times that I won’t rehash it all here. Suffice it to say that the cleanest coal in the world is a lot like the healthiest cigarette in the world — a dangerous farce.
Second, it’s completely misleading to say that PRB coal has been running through here for 10 to 15 years. That’s true only in an extremely limited sense (and it’s flatly untrue in the Bellingham area). You must also acknowledge that the export proposals call for multiplying the volume of coal trains by 10 to 20+ times above current levels. That’s where the health and quality-of-life concerns really kick in. Here’s an analogy: I don’t mind having cars on the street in front of my house, but I’d be very troubled if the volume of traffic increased by 20 times in order to serve a coal company’s profits.
You are correct to say that PRB coal has only been running to Westshore in any amour the last 5-6 years, but I was just talking about north of Centralia. There are other people in the southern part of the state that are stating the exact same garbage. Your also correct that we’ve hashed over the “clean” part about coal, but as usual you’ve stepped over the whole less mercury or CO2 if more PRB coal was used in Asia. And you stepped right over the whole economics for the state and counties. 20 times is a lot of additional tonnage, but realistically there are only a handful of communities that will really be effected, but, the BNSF and the state will take care of the crossing issues. I’m not going to give up, as frustrating as this issue is there should be a comprise reached, I don’t believe either side should get what they want.
Eric de Place
You’re still being misleading.
Let’s talk about southwest Washington first. The TransAlta coal power plant takes roughly 5 million tons per year, give or take, plus a little for the Weyerhaueser plant. The Longview coal export terminal would put 60 million tons—12 times as much coal!—into those same communities. Those coal shipments pass through Spokane, a decent swath of eastern Washington, the Columbia Gorge, Vancouver (WA), and other river towns in southwest Washington.
That’s just the beginning. Cherry Point would put an additional 50 million tons—another 10 times as much—onto the rail lines. That coal would affect all the communities I just mentioned, plus Tacoma, Seattle, Edmonds, Everett, Marysville, Burlington, and Bellingham, just to name a few.
Finally, which was less mercury and CO2: PRB coal or natural gas? PRB coal or solar? PRB coal or hydro? PRB coal or energy efficiency? PRB coal or wind? PRB coal or geothermal energy?
Bryan you summed things up very well….
PRB coal will and already is helping to clean stacks in Asia!
Build the ports and we help the environment and create jobs! This is a Win-Win situation!
There are also grain trains coming, possibly Soda Ash and Potash coming to this facility.
This is a bulk facility and would be a very important asset to this ‘United States of America’. Not many ports can handle Cape Size Vessels. You want efficiency and “green”, these Cape Size Vessels are the ‘greenest’ out there.
Stopping this port also stops the more efficient transport of other commodities!
Eric de Place
Riiiiight…. You want the Northwest to okay a gigantic coal export terminal on the grounds that it’s theoretically possible for it to ship some other less dangerous bulk commodity.
By same logic, I guess I should build a nuclear waste storage tank in my backyard because then be theoretically possible for me to store something less dangerous in the future. Brilliant.
Its not theoretical, they plan to ship grain. Look into it, they have already said grain will be one of the commodities shipped. There was already a meeting with grain shippers. This port has been in the works for decades and coal is a hot commodity on the world market now. 50 years from now maybe it still will be, maybe not, but we will have a good deepwater port.
I dont think grain is the primary reason the port should be built, but a new deepwater port is definitely an important reason. Cape size ships are getting more important in world trade. The United States has few ports that accommodate these vessels.
I still find it ironic that you want to stop the export of some of the cleanest coal in the world, even though you know dirtier coal will almost certainly burned in instead…..
Eric de Place
Yay, grain! Feeding people is nice.
Boo, coal! Destroying the planet’s climate is not nice.
You say, “…dirtier coal will almost certainly burned in instead.”
Presumably at this point you’re just trying to make me insane. You do realize that I’ve addressed this claim ad nauseum, right?
As I’ve noted something like a gazillion times now, what you’re saying is wrong. As evidence, please see the work of economist Tom Power who shows that—no big surprise here—basic market economics apply to coal. Less supply means higher prices and lower demand. You can learn more at these links:
Your evidence is what again?
You have addressed dirtier coal, but you always compare coal to crack or smoking or something. Yes, I have read all the links to your articles…..
PRB coal is competing with Indonesian coal. The majority of coal from Indonesia has far more pollutants and much has a lower BTU rating. It should be easy to find info on Indonesian coal. I have read many. PRB is often blended with other coals to lower Sulfur and other toxic emissions. When I have time I will find some articles or company websites on the facts of Indonesian coal if that is what you need….
It was also noted in the earlier discussions that PRB coal is going to have little effect on price. Of coarse it will have some effect, but very little. I have read your articles, but you do not need a long or even short article to support the fact that POWDER RIVER COAL is some of the cleanest steam coal in the world. I am not sure what evidence you need to believe that. It should be simple to figure out, that if you take some of cleanest coal off the market, dirtier coal will be burned instead.
What evidence do you need?
Eric de Place
Let’s try to bring this into focus. Here’s something we disagree on: what PRB coal will substitute for.
As far as I can tell, you’re asserting that every BTU from PRB coal will replace a BTU of dirtier coal from somewhere else. But why do you think that?
It’s more likely—and I’ve provided evidence to this effect—that PRB coal will simply add to the volume of coal burned in China. It’s not as if there’s some fixed amount of coal that China will consume regardless of cost or difficulty of obtaining it. And if PRB coal adds to the total volume of coal burned, then you’re looking at the pollution from the dirtier coal plus the pollution from the PRB coal to boot.
By the same token, withholding PRB coal from China does not imply that there will be a one-to-one replacement of that PRB energy will coal from somewhere else. More likely, energy that can’t be obtained from PRB coal would be replaced by a basket of choices that might include some mix of the following: coal from elsewhere (that would be more expensive than PRB), renewable power, energy efficiency, energy conservation.
Maybe we can focus on that for now. You can’t just keep asserting that China will burn the same amount of coal regardless. That’s not consistent with the evidence nor with basic economics.
When we’re done with that argument, here are a couple more things we can bicker about:
1.) Whether it makes sense to provide PRB coal in place of dirtier coal, when the only acceptable environmental answer is less coal, and ultimately no coal.
2.) Do US exports encourage China to “lock-in” long-term coal consumption by building new coal-fired power plants?
3.) How do we factor in the pollution from transporting the coal? Note that US ports are roughly twice as far away from China as Indonesian ports are. And note that PRB coal is a fairly low-energy coal, which means transporting more of it to obtain the same energy as many other coals.
“As far as I can tell, you’re asserting that every BTU from PRB coal will replace a BTU of dirtier coal from somewhere else. But why do you think that?”
So far there is no evidence that a single “extra” coal plant has been built to burn the Powder River Coal in China so far. There is however amble evidence to support that PRB coal is being burnt in boilers that were burning coal from some other sources. PRB coal excels when it is blended in a boiler, creating a cleaner burn. This is especially helpful in older plants that are already built.
China has plans for lots of new coal fired plants. You think more plants will be built based on a port that is initially going to ship 24 million tons a year? Maybe, but there is absolutely no way to know this. The introduction of coal from the PRB could suppress new higher polluting coal fields from being developed, just as easily as it could increase the amount of plants. An argument like this seems baseless. There is no way to know how the econmics will play out.
It is much more likely the coal will be blended with dirty coal of existing plants with less pollution controls. Why? Because that is where our coal excels! You or I would only be guessing if we thought more plants would be brought online with the introduction of a PRB source. Just as many plants could be built anyhow with coal from other locations.
As for your numbered points:
1.) With all technologies currently available to produce energy, I believe we should use them all! We should never rely on just one or even a couple in any given region. Disasters and economics can effect the production of energy in one day. By keeping a more balanced approach to energy it makes the infrastructure more reliable.
I have no problem with more Solar and Wind. I do have a problem with destroying efficient infrastructure that is already built, such as Transatlanta and Boardman. I also have a problem with preventing new more efficient coal plants from being built such as the on that was going to be built in Eastern Washington. We should take advantage of the resources we have available to create a power grid that does not rely on any one thing. That includes coal!
2.)Its better they lock in long term coal contracts with Cleaner US coal than some dirtier mine somewhere else. A mine that might not only have a worse product but have unfair working conditions and human rights violations. Here in the US we have a good product, with some of the safest mines in the world, with workers that are paid a good wage!
3.)This is tough, because each load would very greatly by age, type and design of the ship. I do know Cape-Size Vessels that would call Cherry Point home are some of the most efficient ways to move anything.
Where did you get that “serving the Cherry Point terminal will increase train traffic by 10 times?” That would be over 150 trains a day. The Cherry Point terminal can only handle 8 trains a day based on their plans. That is obviously an exageration that only helps to inflame an already volatile subject. Let’s stick to the facts.
Eric de Place
That’s not what I said.
I said that the Cherry Point facilitiy would add another 10 times as much coal to the rail lines as is currently used at the TransAlta coal plant in Centralia. (Around 5 mt/yr at Centralia vs. 50 mt/yr planned for Cherry Point.)