King Coal Goes Marlboro Man & Joe Camel

King Coal Goes Marlboro Man & Joe Camel

As everyone knows, the largest American tobacco and cigarette companies responded to declining U.S. sales by exporting their products – and the cancer caused by these products – to dozens of countries in the developing world. They invested heavily in advertising and distribution networks to expand these new markets, and it paid off in higher exports and foreign sales revenue. Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man went global. Large U.S. coal mining companies – and the railroad companies that move the coal – are now pursuing the same strategy. U.S. coal use is declining due to the closure of coal fired power plants or their conversion to natural gas or other fuels. The move away from coal has accelerated recently, due to low natural gas prices, stagnant domestic electricity demand, the growing costs of complying with U.S. air and water pollution regulations and aggressive public health and environmental activism against coal fired plants. Like the tobacco companies before them, coal producers and the utilities companies that own coal fired power plants have spent decades fighting human health and environmental regulations, often successfully avoiding or delaying the regulations or the need to comply with new regulations for years. Now, the market forces, environmental standards and local and national public health activism are simultaneously combining to put pressure on coal plant owners to close many of the oldest, smallest and/or least efficient and dirtiest plants. Almost half of US power plants are over 50 years old and many analysts predict that over 20% of the country’s plants will close in the next few years. Five years ago, almost half of U.S. electricity production was generated by burning coal. By this spring, that figure had dropped to just over one-third. The electricity from these coal plants is likely to be replaced in the regional and national grids (mostly) by natural gas fired facilities, with some small growth in renewable energy production.

King Coal’s strategy is clear: Export a lot more coal, often to China and other rapidly growing economies. In terms of U.S. GDP, this might sound like good news for American companies and coal miners. For some, that is the end of the story. The problem, however, is that the millions of tons of CO2 and a host of other pollutants emitted when coal is burned in China or anywhere else around the world have wide ranging impacts. And many of these effects will impact the United States and its many interests around the world. First, like cigarettes, exporting coal also exports the serious human health risks and environmental damage to people in other countries, particularly children, seniors, anyone with asthma or other respiratory challenges. Also, such coal may well undercut the prices for renewable energy production in other countries, and thereby slow or halt investments in cleaner energy development and energy efficiency abroad. Finally, exporting coal further contributes to climate change, which will harm Americans and non-Americans for decades to come. The millions of tons of carbon from U.S. coal will be in the atmosphere for decades, warming the planet and degrading human health and the environment.

Exporting U.S. coal is likely to bring money in now, but it will cost the U.S. dearly later. It is well past time to plan for steady and reasonably rapid declines in coal mining and coal burning in the United States and abroad. Exporting coal now for a quick buck, in exchange for costly climate change impacts later, is a bad deal. To this end, federal officials should shelve plans to invest in port facilities designed to expand coal exports. Opponents of these port expansion plans are playing catch up. Seattle city leaders, like many other local community officials and citizens across the West coast states, are speaking out against ports expansion for King Coal’s new export dreams. Federal and state governments must also wake up and work harder to cut carbon emissions at home and abroad, before we export another problem we are grappling with at home.

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