Beyond Coal – Thinking About Progress Worldwide


April 24, 2014 by John Crapper

Coal power plant

Coal power plant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Sierra Club has a nationwide program they call “Beyond Coal”. Their accomplishments have been impressive.


The latest from the Sierra Club.

Power plants retired or scheduled for retirement to date: 163
Power plants needing to be retired: 360

Dirty boilers announced for retirement: 461
Dirty boilers needing to be retired: 813

Dirty megawatts retired: 65,714
Dirty megawatts needing to be retired: 277,299

(An average coal-burning plant is 500 MW which powers roughly 260,000 houses a year.)


On its face it would be easy to jump to the conclusion that the fight to transition away from the most polluting power source currently in use is being won.  That would be wrong.  Let’s take a closer look at what is currently happening in this country and worldwide in terms of coal.

Coal companies, seeing little future growth domestically, have a new plan: strip-mine coal in Montana and Wyoming, transport it on long coal trains and massive cargo ships through Washington and Oregon, and sell it to Asia.

Coal Train Facts does a great job of describing what has happened, what is planned and what the impacts will be for all parties impacted by this proposal. Here are some important excerpts from the site.  (I encourage you to click on the active link and read  the entire article.)

Powder River Basin Province of northeastern Wy...

Powder River Basin Province (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

China is building at least one new coal-fired power plant every week and has a seemingly limitless appetite for coal. The Powder River Basin in southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming has a seemingly limitless supply. There is increasing interest linking this supply with Asian demand through west coast coal terminals. Two potential sites in Washington state—Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point (Carrix/SSA Marine, Peabody Energy) and Millenium Bulk Terminal at Longview (Ambre Energy, Arch Coal)—are currently the most active projects, although other sites both in the States and in Canada are under consideration……

There are currently plans to develop the largest coal export facility in North America at Cherry Point, in northwest Washington state. The Gateway Pacific Terminal, a project of Pacific International Terminals, would be owned by SSA Marine, which is owned by Carrix, partnered with Goldman Sachs. Coal mined from the Powder River Basin by Peabody Energy would be hauled by trains along BNSF rail lines. The coal train corridor extends from mines in Montana and Wyoming through Sandpoint, Idaho to Spokane, down through the Columbia River Gorge, then up along the Puget Sound coast, passing through Longview, Tacoma, Seattle, Edmonds, Everett, Mt. Vernon, Bellingham, Ferndale and all points in between…


Transporting coal from the Powder River Basin to proposed west coast terminal sites would require unprecedented levels of regional rail usage. There are concerns not only about dramatically increased rail traffic, but also about negative impacts associated with coal trains specifically, due to train length, weight, content, and polluting capacity. The terminal at Cherry Point would see the addition of approximately 30 miles of coal trains daily to the BNSF rail line that runs along the Puget Sound coast. This would likely constrain passenger rail and adversely affect the transport of freight other than coal. The Washington state rail system is already nearing practical capacity; infrastructure would need to be upgraded to accommodate proposed usage. BNSF has been largely silent on the issue of rail improvements ; it remains unclear who would pay, and what kind of physical and economic disruption such upgrades would cause…



While the Gateway Pacific Terminal and the associated coal trains would be active in only the transport and export of coal, it is important to recognize that the only function of coal transport is to link coal mining to coal combustion: GPT and related enterprises need to be considered as part of this larger system. Each of the various processes associated with coal have negative effects on local economies, public health, communities and the environment. The coal mines in the Powder River Basin (Montana and Wyoming) continue to degrade local aquifers and water supplies. Coal combustion in China presents a serious health risk to the hundreds of millions of people, especially children, who live in affected airsheds. Coal combustion is also associated with negative impacts that transcend geographic borders. Ocean acidification, acid rain, mercury emissions, and climate change affect global populations, regardless of where the coal is burned. The financial cost accrued from health and environmental damages from coal mining, processing, transport and combustion are currently estimated at a third to over half a trillion dollars annually in the U.S. alone.

Here is a stunning statistic. If China’s carbon usage keeps pace with its economic growth, the country’s carbon dioxide emissions will reach 8 gigatons a year by 2030, which is equal to the entire world’s CO2 production today.

Some more recent data gives hope that this statistic will not be realized. In an article appearing April 16th 2014 at Climate Progress they report the following:

“The End of China’s Coal Boom” is a new, must-read chart-filled report from Greenpeace. It documents the response of China to the almost unimaginable life-shortening air pollution caused by its rapid growth in coal use.
One of its charts highlights the stunning statistic that over half of the growth in global carbon pollution in the past decade has come just from China’s increase in coal!

But that kind of growth of coal has more than just climate impacts. It is “draining the country’s arid west of precious water resources,” as Greenpeace itself noted.
And then there is the air pollution. Climate Progress has pointed out “when eight-year-olds start getting lung cancer that can be attributed to air pollution, you’ve got a problem. When smog forces schools, roads, and airports to shut down because visibility is less than 50 yards, you’ve got a problem. When a study finds that severe pollution is slashing an average of five-and-a-half years from the life expectancy in northern China, you’ve got a problem.”

The response by the Chinese government has been to require coal burning be cut — in some cases sharply — in China’s heavily populated eastern provinces…”

As Greenpeace’s Li Shuo and Kaisa Kosonen wrote:

“Twelve of China’s 34 provinces, that burn 44% of the country’s coal, are committed to control their coal use. Some, like Beijing, have pledged ambitious cuts as steep as 50% in only five years.”

This puts China and hence the world much closer to the 2°C path, as the report points out. But if we are to have any chance whatsoever of getting anywhere near that essential target, China will have to commit to have coal consumption peak and then start declining in the 2020s. And we Americans will have to get off our butts, too.

The above article is encouraging in that the dire effects of coal burning might be taking such a drastic toll on enough people in China to alter their future course. But, personally, I take the pledge to reduce coal use by as much as 50% with a huge grain of salt.
China’s history of overly stating statistics on paper to portray a better than actual picture of reality is well documented. One only has to look at the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution for examples of hyperbole in this regard in terms of such things as food production and economic output. And having personally lived in Taiwan for one year (I know technically not China but they still share the same heritage) I can attest to this practice first hand.



World Coal Production

These are the most recent forecasts in Coal-fired Boilers: (World Analysis and Forecast published by the McIlvaine Company.)

World coal-fired power plant capacity will grow from 1,759,000 MW in 2010 to 2,384,000 MW in 2020. Some 80,000 MW will be replaced. So there will be 705,000 MW of new coal-fired boilers built. The annual new boiler sales will average 70,000 MW. The annual investment will be $140 billion.

Coal-fired power in Asia will rise to 1,464,000 MW in 2020 up from 918,000 MW this year. This will account for an increase in CO2 of 2.6 billion tons.

Coal-fired power in India will rise from 95,000 MW to 294,000 MW over the next 11 years. This accounts for the largest percentage rise (300) plus the biggest quantitative rise (199,000 MW). So India alone will increase CO2 by 955 million tons per year

So even if the US and Europe were to cut CO2 emissions by far more than the targeted 20 percent, the total CO2 increase from Asia will offset it by a wide margin.

Remember that saying “Think globally – Act locally.” When thinking of coal that is exactly what we need to do. We might be making some progress locally in this country but when you broaden out your thinking and think about the issue from a global perspective it is hard to use the word “progress” to describe what is currently happening. It is just a little ass-backwards.

And if the current proposal to ship coal from the west coast of the U.S. to China becomes a reality we will have taken a huge ass-backwards step in our fight to correct course to mend our fossil foolish ways.

Holy Shitters, using the lens of ass-forward thinking and putting the waste-end of things foremost in our minds must oppose this crappy proposal to ship coal across this country by rail to be put on a tanker to be shipped half way around the world to be burned in China.  CO2 emissions do not recognize borders.  We live in the same world and breath from the same air.  It is not out of sight; out of mind for us.

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Our climate is changing. I'm humorously serious about addressing it. I'm convinced my ego is the main culprit. My religion, Holy Shitters, demands I humble myself and celebrate the fact my shit stinks.
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