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Earth Power Hardware

As US Cleans Its Energy Mix, It Ships Coal Problems Overseas 275

Hugh Pickens writes writes "Thomas K. Grose reports that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that greenhouse gas emissions in the US have fallen 8 percent from their 2007 peak to 6,703 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent, due largely to the drop in coal-fired electricity which in 2012 generated 37.4 percent of US electricity, down from 50 percent in 2005. But don't celebrate just yet. A major side effect of that cleaner air in the US has been the further darkening of skies over Europe and Asia as US coal producers have been shipping the most carbon-intensive fuel to energy-hungry markets overseas. US coal exports to China were on track to double last year and demand for US metallurgical coal, the high-heat content coking coal that is used for steelmaking, is so great in Asia that shipments make a round-the-world journey from Appalachia as they are sent by train to the port of Baltimore, where they steam to sea through the Chesapeake Bay, then south across the Atlantic Ocean and around Africa's Cape of Good Hope to reach Asian ports. The Tyndall Center study estimates that the burning of all that exported coal could erase fully half the gains the United States has made in reducing carbon emissions and if the trend continues, the dramatic changes in energy use in the United States — in particular, the switch from coal to newly abundant natural gas for generating electricity — will have only a modest impact on global warming, observers warn. 'Without a meaningful cap on global carbon emissions, the exploitation of shale gas reserves is likely to increase total emissions,' write Dr John Broderick and Prof Kevin Anderson. 'For this not to be the case, consumption of displaced fuels must be reduced globally and remain suppressed indefinitely; in effect displaced coal must stay in the ground (PDF).'"
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As US Cleans Its Energy Mix, It Ships Coal Problems Overseas

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 18, 2013 @09:01AM (#43202247)

    It seems like they're trying really hard in this article to make it seem like the reduction of coal in the US will have no effect, while not being able to escape the fact that it does. For example, they use phrases like:

    ... could erase fully half the gains the United States has made ...

    "fully half...," why not just say half? because fully half sounds worse.

    will have only a modest impact on global warming

    "only a modest impact...," but still an impact. I don't want to downplay the issue, but I really do think they're overplaying it. Rather than having a article that is based in fact, we get this apparently biased piece of journalism that brings to question the integrity of the article.

  • by pseudofrog ( 570061 ) on Monday March 18, 2013 @09:02AM (#43202255)
    China is using more coal. Let's blame America, not the annual movement of tens of millions of people from poverty to the middle class.

  • Re:NIMBY... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 18, 2013 @09:15AM (#43202373)
    PLEASE put a Nuke plant in my backyard.

    Worst case scenario, the plant melts down, and I get relocated. Boo hoo. In exchange, I get a 100% change of not having to breathe coal ash, or any other noxious byproducts of coal burning plants. And the CO2 produced by a nuclear plant is negligible, basically non-existent compared to even 'clean' natural gas'.

    I like those odds.

    And nuclear waste? Use it to generate power, dipshits. The more radioactive the waste, the hotter it is, and the more useful it is to generate power. Throw it in a pool, insulate it, and use it as a heat source for a sterling engine or something...
  • by Smidge204 ( 605297 ) on Monday March 18, 2013 @09:27AM (#43202429) Journal

    The middle class in China still emit a fraction of the GHG per capita that the middle class in the US does.

    All the per-capita data I've ever seen does not break out the data by "class" / income bracket. Where are you getting this information from?

  • Re:NIMBY... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by nedlohs ( 1335013 ) on Monday March 18, 2013 @09:34AM (#43202447)

    You have a remarkably stupid idea of what "worst case" means.

  • Re:NIMBY... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by h4rr4r ( 612664 ) on Monday March 18, 2013 @09:36AM (#43202459)

    Why is that?

    Assuming he is not on the plant site that is exactly what would happen. People in the surrounding areas would be relocated.

    Of course you could go look at what happens when a coal slurry pond breaks.

  • by theVarangian ( 1948970 ) on Monday March 18, 2013 @09:38AM (#43202469)

    China is using more coal. Let's blame America, not the annual movement of tens of millions of people from poverty to the middle class. Sheesh.

    America is cleaning up it's energy generation by using marginally cleaner natural gas and sells surplus polluting coal to eager Asian customers. Political pundits in the US then try to sucker the public into believing this is better for the environment.

    Some of us are not fooled and call bullshit...

  • by pseudofrog ( 570061 ) on Monday March 18, 2013 @09:45AM (#43202513)
    Everything I've seen says that natural gas is two to three times cleaner than coal. That's not "marginally" cleaner; it's a significant improvement, and it is clearly better for the environment than sticking with coal.

    And the US isn't forcing Asian countries to buy coal. They need energy -- China's economy is growing by 10% every year. They've determined that coal is the best choice for now, and this is somehow the US's fault?

    I'm not quite sure what you're calling bullshit about. Not everything the US does is necessarily bad.
  • Re:Always (Score:5, Insightful)

    by HeckRuler ( 1369601 ) on Monday March 18, 2013 @09:47AM (#43202521)

    I have to agree. We're switching to alternatives and the coal miners are now exporting. That's good from a CO2 perspective and from a trade deficit perspective. We've got more green energy, which is almost universally good. What? You thought all those coal mines were just going to shut down? No, that'll take longer. If ever.

    Listen people, if you forecast nothing but doom and gloom, EVEN WHEN THERE IS GOOD NEWS, then people are going to become jaded to your forecasts. They're going to assume that everything you report on and forecast has one hell of a negative nancy bias. And their assumption is going to be correct. So buck up me kiddo, things are looking up.

    I mean, jesus... 50% to 35% in 5 years? Damn. I didn't think our power structure was that nimble.

  • by HeckRuler ( 1369601 ) on Monday March 18, 2013 @09:52AM (#43202559)

    Yeah, "a modest impact", hell, if we somehow eliminated coal all-together it might only have a modest impact. I believe the whole "how much are we going to have to change, and for what results?" is still one of those topics that's up for debate. Real meaningful debate, not the mindless droning of the politicians who still can't accept that the environmentalists were right about something.

  • by argStyopa ( 232550 ) on Monday March 18, 2013 @09:54AM (#43202575) Journal

    Not to mention the entire slant of the article trying to blame the US for other countries' energy consumption appetites.

    How about "As the US succeeds at cleaning its energy mix, other countries using the coal instead."?

    But that might make us out to be something other than the Great Satan, surely?

  • Re:Always (Score:5, Insightful)

    by causality ( 777677 ) on Monday March 18, 2013 @10:06AM (#43202655)

    Seems people always manage to find a way to make something the fault of the U.S.

    It's like having a bitch of a wife that makes everything your fault.

    The US wants to have a heavy influence (which is a form of power) over the rest of the world. It also tends to act like the world's police.

    Maybe, just maybe, increased power, influence, and prestige actually should come with increased responsibility and scrutiny.

    It's not necessarily "anti-US" sentiment.

  • by alexander_686 ( 957440 ) on Monday March 18, 2013 @10:07AM (#43202667)

    True – but I think it is a reasonable assumption. Factor in that China’s middle class earns about a 1/3 of developed nations – that implies lower energy usage and lower CO2 emissions. I would think this was true even after you factor in that China relies heavily on dirty coal. (Now, start projecting 20 years in the future when middle class income is closer to developed country levels.)

  • by khallow ( 566160 ) on Monday March 18, 2013 @10:25AM (#43202833)

    Does that assessment include environmental damage caused by gas extraction with hydraulic fracturing?

    Compared to strip mining of coal? That might make the difference even more pronounced.

    Calling bullshit about it being an improvement to switch to natural gas, extracted by hydraulic fracturing then turning around and selling coal to China and going on about how you are doing wonders for the environment. If the US was serious about this they'd close down the coal mines. I refer you to TFA (And keep in mind that his primary research question was: Has US Shale Gas Reduced CO2 Emissions?

    China will burn coal anyway. Might as well be US coal.

    There has been a substantial increase in coal exports from the US over this time period (2008-2011) and globally, coal consumption has continued to rise. As we discussed in our previous report (Broderick et al. 2011), without a meaningful cap on global carbon emissions, the exploitation of shale gas reserves is likely to increase total emissions. For this not to be the case, consumption of displaced fuels must be reduced globally and remain suppressed indefinitely; in effect displaced coal must stay in the ground.

    In effect, the author is saying that shale gas reduced carbon dioxide emissions, but someone is still burning US coal. And how can the author claim that shale coal probably will increase total emissions, when it didn't? You really have to wonder when propaganda manages to find its way into the abstract for a research article.

  • by Rich0 ( 548339 ) on Monday March 18, 2013 @10:45AM (#43202983) Homepage

    Agreed. When the US burns oil they don't blame whoever sold it to us, and that seems appropriate. It makes sense to regulate pollution-production at the point where it becomes pollution.

    And does metallurgical use of coal actually produce much in the way of Greenhouse gases? Companies aren't going to have super-high-quality coal shipped all the way around the world just to feed some fire that could just be as easily fed with cheaper local fuel. That is a low-impurity source of carbon that is going to end up getting incorporated into the steel itself - it is a raw material, not a fuel. The only way that carbon will end up in the atmosphere is if somebody burns the resulting girders. I'm sure some of it gets lost during manufacture, but companies already have incentive to minimize that as much as possible if they're paying so much to acquire it.

    The same is true of oil used to make plastics and other petrochemicals. If you burn oil as fuel it produces greenhouse gases, but there are lots of uses for oil which do not release much CO2 into the atmosphere, and for these uses companies already have lots of incentive to minimize waste (it is expensive to dispose of under a proper regulatory regime, and it represents mass that could have gone into a useful product that would make money instead of costing money).

    So, don't yell at the people producing resources. Yell at the people who are taking valuable materials and just burning them in unclean ways.

  • by Sentrion ( 964745 ) on Monday March 18, 2013 @10:58AM (#43203083)

    All I can say is WOW! Does anybody remember the times when the industrial west was importing cheap raw materials from third world countries to support its manufacturing?

    Exactly. The world has changed. Wealthy business owners and the wealthy executives who manage those businesses have figured out that they really don't need the American middle class or working class to sustain their wealth creating machine. In America manufacturers had to comply with a mountain of OHSA regulations, environmental regulations, labor laws that affect how many hours you can drive a worker, and how much you can pay them. Then they figured out that if they moved their operations to totalitarian states there were much fewer environmental, safety, and labors regulations to get in the way, and they got a tax break on the profits they keep locked safely away in offshore havens. They are now learning that they can create their new customer base in the same countries where the work is being done. With the manufacturing demand for materials and energy, it is no surprise that our coal resources are being shipped offshore along with the jobs and welfare of the American people.

    But even though our nation's wealth has been stripped and the American workforce has been reduced to servanthood (ie "the service economy"), and we gradually regress to an agrarian economy, we are told that the cause of our problems is the sense of entitlement to things like food stamps to displaced workers and their families (which is often not enough to prevent malnurishment), medicaid for children and their parents (childless adults often do not qualify in some states even if they are critically ill with a curable disease), or the social security that only workers and middle class pay for (earnings over $100k are not subject to any social security taxes). The only solution put forward by the political groups sponsored by wealthy business owners is to lower taxes on the rich - with the presumption that once the rich have more money they will hire American workers and spend money to buy American products. But the world has changed, and only a nation of fools would believe that a change in tax policy is going to magically encourage the wealthy to hire Americans or buy American products. With more money in their pockets the rich will create more jobs in totalitarian countries on the other side of the world and buy more products made in those countries. If the whole planet has to choke in coal ashes from the under-regulated toxic manufacturing processes or greenhouse gases from the diesel fuel used to move the massive amount of goods traveling enormous distances, then that is OK as long as the rich get richer.

  • Re:NIMBY... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Entropius ( 188861 ) on Monday March 18, 2013 @11:28AM (#43203413)

    Consider that an atomic bomb has a mass of fissible material measured in kilograms, The Average US spent fuel pool has a mass measured in kilotons.

    If you don't understand how these things are different then you really ought not to be telling other people about nuclear physics. (And the word is "fissile", not "fissible".)

  • Re:Always (Score:4, Insightful)

    by akb ( 39826 ) on Monday March 18, 2013 @02:30PM (#43205653)

    Outlaw, no. A global treaty that put a price on carbon emissions and took trade into account, that sounds about right.

"The pathology is to want control, not that you ever get it, because of course you never do." -- Gregory Bateson