The governors of Oregon and Washington are on the right track in questioning whether the U.S. is heading down the wrong track on coal exports.
Theres a term in economics negative externalities that describes what the coal industry wants to do by selling millions of pounds of American coal to Asian nations for decades to come.
An externality is an expense or consequence imposed on bystanders by somebody elses action. The most obvious example is pollution from a factory whose products would cost a little more if managers went to the expense of treating outbound waste. By foisting eventual cleanup costs on the public, they hand us a financial obligation. That may only amount to a few pennies per unit of product. But a penny here and a penny there, multiplied billions of times, makes it worth doing.
American coal producers are faced by a recently transformed domestic-energy market. Newly inexpensive natural gas produced by hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is far cleaner than coal in terms of air pollution, and more politically acceptable in a time of growing awareness of the dangers of climate change. Coal-fired electric power plants in the U.S. are heavily regulated and increasingly viewed as an outmoded technology.
By opening up new routes to clients in the developing world in east and south Asia, coal companies plan to perpetuate the 19th and 20th century business models that rely on selling dirty fuel to nations where citizens are powerless to protest pollution. If they were proposing to export shiploads of ugly colors of paint or bad aftershave, we could all turn a blind eye. But by exporting a product that will be burned within the same small atmosphere shared by everyone on the planet, coal firms have made their plans into a legitimate worry to Americans.
This is a particular concern to Northwest governors, for a variety of reasons. Impacts from coal-export terminals proposed for Bellingham, Longview, St. Helens and elsewhere include pollution from coal particles blown from train cars and traffic tie-ups at railroad crossings.
Once it reaches its destination and is burned, coal will produce enormous quantities of climate-altering gases. Governors and citizens of coastal states should be especially conscious of this, as we have a front-row seat for sea-level rise and changes in storm intensity. Powder River Basin coal is notable for its low percentage of one objectionable pollutant, sulfur. But this coal also contains trace amounts of hazardous heavy metals. It has been established that much of the heavy-metal pollution in the Cascades started out in Asian power plants. We dont want more.
The two governors are right to question artificially low federal lease rates for coal mines. This amounts to an invisible federal subsidy for corporations that are turning around and producing problems for all of us.
Much as it might seem desirable to spur economic development and job creation in shipping terminals, exporting coal means importing problems into the U.S. for generations to come. The governors should continue to protect the publics highest interests by vigilantly challenging this misplaced effort to give a declining industry a fresh market for its problem-causing product.