Primary tabs

Exporting Coal: Struggling U.S. Coal Industry Trying to Stay Relevant By Shipping Through the Northwest

coal train exporting coal pacific northwest

U.S. coal companies are facing some tricky math these days. Production levels have remained more or less the same since 2005, according to the Energy Information Agency (EIA), but during that time domestic consumption has dropped nearly 11 percent.

Where is all that extra coal going? Some is piling up at power plants, but increasingly, more and more of it is being shipped overseas.

The coal industry is hoping to accelerate that export trend, but their ability to keep delivering steady volumes of coal is entirely dependant on their ability to open up new export terminals at coastal ports around the country, particularly in the Pacific Northwest where the dirty rock could be more directly shipped to the burgeoning Asian markets.  

Still, aside from some regional coverage and some incredible work from organizations like the Sightline Institute and Climate Solutions, these Northwest export terminals aren’t getting nearly the amount of attention from environmentalists and climate activists as, say, tar sands pipelines.

This post will serve as a basic overview of the current state of coal production and exports, and what the industry hopes to accomplish in coming years.

Coal Train to Boardman: EPA Warns of "Significant" Public Health Threats in Northwest Coal Export Proposal

As demand for coal in the United States has cooled off in recent years, coal mining companies have been scrambling to deliver their dirty loads to customers abroad. But what does this mean for communities along the transportation routes, particularly at the ports and export terminals where the coal is offloaded from trains and onto boats?

The U.S. EPA, for one, is warning of the potential for “significant impacts to public health” in one such port town.

Coal exports have more than doubled over the past six years, and are at their highest levels in over two decades. According to an Associated Press evaluation of Energy Information Agency coal data, more than 107 million tons of coal were exported in 2011.

But that’s a small drop in the bucket (or lump in the stocking? sorry, couldn’t resist) of what coal companies hope to export in the very near future. (Farron Cousins covered the coal export trend here on DeSmogBlog earlier this year.)

Nowhere is the push to export coal being felt more than in the Pacific Northwest, where there are currently plans to ship more than 100 million tons each year, according to the Sightline Institute.

Must Read Muckrake on the Whistleblower Behind the Enbridge Tar Sands Pipeline Spill


On a midsummer evening in July of 2010, heavy crude started gushing from a 30-inch pipeline into Talmadge Creek, near Marshall, Michigan. By the next morning, heavy globs of oil soon were coating the Kalamazoo River, into which the Talmadge flows, and the stench of petroleum filled the air.

Enbridge, the Canadian company that owns and operates the ruptured pipeline 6B, made a lot of mistakes in the hours after the first gallons spilled. The disaster didn’t have to be so bad. Records of the official responses showed, for instance, that the company didn’t send someone to the site until the next morning. And that the Enbridge pipeline controllers increased pressure to the line, on a hunch that the funky signals they were getting was from a bubble, and not a spill.

When all was said and done, an estimated 1 million gallons of tar sands crude had leaked into the Kalamazoo River – ranked by the EPA as the largest spill in Midwestern history – with some oil flowing a full 40 miles down the river towards Lake Michigan.

Though the company that owns the pipeline, Enbridge, tried to deny it, the oil was soon revealed to be diluted bitumen (or DilBit), a form of tar sands crude that is thick and abrasive and can only be pumped through pipelines at enormously high pressure. DitBit is also, it turns out, much harder to clean up than regular old dirty crude. And that – the clean up – is where the story gets really complicated.

This week, OnEarth.org (where I’m also a blogger), published an incredible 3-part series about the Enbridge spill, the egregious mishandling of clean up efforts, and Enbridge’s deliberate cover-up of its shoddy, cheap, and reckless work. Written by Ted Genoways, who spent weeks on the ground in Michigan and accumulated over 100 hours of interviews, the piece is the sort of long form, old-fashioned, exhaustive muckraking that you don’t see nearly enough of these days.

Tar Sands in the United States: What You Need to Know

Think that that dirtiest oil on the planet is only found up in Alberta? You might be surprised then to hear that there are tar sands deposits in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, much of which are on public lands.

While none of the American tar sands deposits are actively being developed yet, energy companies are frantically working to raise funds, secure approvals, and start extracting.

To help you better understand the state of tar sands development in the U.S., here’s a primer.  

Where are the American tar sands?

The Bureau of Land Management estimates that there are between 12-19 billion barrels of tar sands oil, mostly in Eastern Utah, though not all of that would be recoverable.

This map from the Utah Geologic Survey shows all of the state’s tar sands.

Young Americans Sue Government to Stop Global Warming, Polluter Interests Granted Intervention To Defend

Last May, a group of young Americans, fed up with government inaction on climate change, decided to sue to protect their future. The group, led by 16-year old Alec Loorz, founder of Kids vs. Global Warming and the iMatter campaign, filed legal actions against the federal government and 49 states, seeking to force the states and federal government to develop a comprehensive plan to reduce greenhouse gas pollution to levels deemed necessary by the best available science.

Earlier today, a D.C. District Court judge ruled that the National Association of Manufacturers and other polluter interests can intervene on the government's behalf to argue that they have the right to keep on dumping carbon pollution into the atmosphere.

So the case is sure to prove controversial and the world will be watching to see how the courts handle the matter in the weeks and months to come.

As Loorz, now 17, explained to me last week, the decision to sue the government came only after seeing the failures of the Executive and Legislative branches in addressing the problem.

Look to Canada for Proof that Neither Presidents Nor Pro-Drilling Policies Control Gas Prices

Another Spring, another round of totally uninformed and illogical arguments about gas prices.

You could be forgiven if you’re feeling some deja vu. As conservatives and Congressional Republicans scramble to blame the president for rising gas prices, you might have the feeling that we’ve been here before.

Oh, that’s right. It was just last year (almost exactly a year ago, actually) that prices were pushing towards $4 per gallon, and everyone from Sarah Palin (in a ludicrously misguided and ill-informed Facebook rant) to Speaker Boehner were misplacing blame for pump prices.

Anyone who takes the time to actually look into it can pretty easily learn that the president alone can’t do much about rising gas prices, through expanded drilling or approving pipelines or whatever else.

The AP just ran a definitive piece that looked at 36 years of data, and found “no statistical correlation between how much oil comes out of U.S. wells and the price at the pump.”

And here are twenty experts from across the political spectrum (including the staunchly conservative American Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute) stating clearly that domestic drilling has no real effect on gas prices.

A full 92% of economists surveyed replied that gas prices are set by external market forces, and not domestic policies. Even Fox News reported in 2008 that “no President has the power to increase or to lower gas prices.”

Still, the disinformation flies, and so I’ll throw another fact-based argument in the mix. You want more proof that we can’t drill or pipeline our way to lower gas prices? Look north, to Canada.

Without Facts on Their Side, Oil Shills Try to Buy Keystone Support on Twitter

As the internet reacts to the State Department's bold decision to deny the Keystone XL pipeline proposal, you're likely to come across the moans and cries of the stumbling Goliaths of Big Oil. 

Having lost the Keystone XL battle, the oil industry and its shills in Washington are falling back on that old reliable strategy to spin the decision. That old reliable strategy is, of course, “spending money” to pollute the public conversation with misinformation.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Republican Congressional Committee want to make sure that no matter what your opinion of the decision, and no matter who you follow, that you won't be able to avoid their political spin. Both groups are paying for “Promoted Tweets” on various Twitter streams relating to the Keystone XL decision.

My TweetDeck column that tracks anything tagged #nokxl has had this propaganda sitting atop it for the last couple of hours.

Likewise, a search of the term “Keystone XL,” which was trending on Twitter around 3:30 pm Eastern, turned up this gem from the NRCC.

Keystone XL Pipeline Would Increase Oil Prices in Midwest

Twitter is ablaze with the news that the State Department will announce today that the original TransCanada presidential permit application is dead in the water. Details are murky, so stay tuned for more, but what this likely means is that the State Department will allow TransCanada to re-apply for the permit with a new route that avoids the heart of Nebraska's Ogallalla Aquifer.

While it's good to see that President Obama is standing up to oil industry bullying and Republican pressure to fast-track the permit, this still means Keystone XL is very much in play. If it's ever built, Keystone XL will allow the expansion of the Alberta tar sands that climate scientists worry will send us down a dangerous path of global warming pollution. 

What's more, the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, if built, would increase oil prices in the American Midwest. That’s the shocking takeaway point from a bombshell report about Keystone XL as an export pipeline released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Oil Change International.

We’ve reported time and time again here on DeSmogBlog, the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would not improve America’s energy security, but never has that reality been more clearly conveyed than by this one real-world point that is worth repeating. The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would increase oil prices in the Midwest.

To understand how, exactly, an increased supply of oil to America could increase oil prices domestically, you have to understand two things about the Keystone XL pipeline.

First, Keystone XL is is an export pipeline, funneling foreign crude through American soil to Gulf refineries that will profit most by processing the low-grade tar sands crude into diesel to sell to the booming international market.

Bechtel Whistleblower Warns Against Keystone XL; Witnessed Shoddy Work on TransCanada’s Keystone I

Back in August, DeSmogBlog’s own Emma Pullman co-produced a startling infographic about how the first section of TransCanada’s Keystone pipeline system was “Built to Spill,” with a dozen spills recorded in the pipeline’s first year of operation.

According to a must-read bombshell Op-Ed in the Lincoln Journal Star, these spills came as no big surprise to the workers closest to the project. The piece, published on New Years Eve by a former Bechtel engineer who worked on that original stretch of pipeline, tells the story of gross safety negligence and lax oversight in constuction of that first Keystone line, and warns against letting TransCanada again bring that threat to American soil.

Mike Klink was an inspector for the project, and claims he was fired by the company after repeatedly raising concerns about the substandard materials and poor construction of the pipeline. Klink warns that the company's missteps and shortcuts that already resulted in 12 spills in one year should serve as fair warning against TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline: New Report Spotlights Incredible Threats

In the wake of the State Department’s announcement to delay the Keystone XL decision, another proposed tar sands pipeline is coming under closer scrutiny. The Northern Gateway Pipeline, proposed by Canada’s Enbridge Energy, would stretch nearly 750 miles across Alberta and British Columbia before reaching an inland port. (DeSmogBlog has been following the Northern Gateway Pipeline story in detail.)

A report released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Pembina Institute, and the Living Oceans Society documents the enormous risk – environmental, economic, and social – to communities and regions along the pipeline and tanker paths, specifically to valuable salmon-bearing rivers and coastal ecosystems, including the habitat of the endangered Spirit Bear. 

The impacts anticipated by the “Pipeline and Tanker Trouble” report include:

  • Compromising the lifestyles of First Nations who depend on the region’s lands and waters for their livelihoods, culture, and health.
  • Threatening the economic well-being of thecommunities of British Columbia that depend on fisheries and forests.
  • Potential devastation from a major oil spill from the pipeline or an oil supertanker, which could destroy economically important salmon habitat, as well as the habitat of Spirit Bears and grizzlies, and whales, orcas, and other marine life that depend on these rich coastal waters.
  • Harm from an oil spill to the Great Bear Rainforest thatthe province and First Nations have worked hard toprotect from unsustainable forestry practices and to shift to a conservation-based economy.

Pages