Washington Post Rolls Out a Shallow Series on Electricity

The Washington Post has discovered electricity and the newspaper’s naivety is astonishing. In the first of a series the newspaper says will be “exploring how the world’s hunger for cheap electricity is complicating efforts to combat climate change” (and no doubt trolling for a Pulitizer) reporter Joby Warrick reveals to readers that, can you believe it, oh my gosh, horrors, the U.S. exports coal. We’re shocked, shocked!

What hypocrisy. What gall. The U.S. is trying to limit carbon dioxide emissions from domestic coal-fired electric generating plants. But we are selling the poisonous, satanic stuff to unsuspecting Asians, Africans, and others. We are complicit in this awful trade. For shame. That’s the Post’s take, entirely divorced from reality or common sense.

Standing astride the Powder River Basin, Warrick pontificates, “The Obama administration is seeking to curb the United States’ appetite for the basin’s coal, which scientists say must remain mostly in the ground to prevent a disastrous warming of the planet. Yet each year, nearly half a billion tons of the U.S.-owned fuel are hauled from the region’s vast strip mines and millions of tons are shipped overseas for other countries to burn.”

Hello? The U.S. has been exporting coal for decades, and coal exports are a minor, but useful, aspect of the coal industry. Most coal, 90%, goes to U.S. plants and that will continue.

Let’s look at some numbers, which give scale to the coal export issue not available in the lengthy kick-off to WaPo’s series. U.S. coal production totaled 999.7 million tons in 2014, according to the Energy Information Administration. The U.S. imported 11.3 million tons of coal (primarily from Colombia, Canada, and Indonesia), while exporting 97.3 million tons, or a bit less than 10% of production.

Coal exports roll from Wyo.

Coal exports roll from Wyo.

EIA predicts U.S. coal exports will fall to 77.2 million tons this year and to 68.2 million tons next year. Not a growth business for coal, an industry already in decline in the U.S. due to competition from natural gas. The coal industry will not be exporting coal it won’t be selling to U.S. markets.

Most U.S. coal exports are not sold to make electricity (known to energy geeks as “steam coal”) but to steel makers (the geek-speak is “met coal,” or “metallurgical coal,” which has special characteristics suited to steelmaking). According to EIA, steam coal exports in this year’s third quarter totaled 7 million tons (down l7% ), and met coal exports were 12.7 million tons (down 5.8%).

The Post article quotes a former Clinton administration “advisor,” real title unspecified, making the absurd statement, “We’re a fossil-fuel-exporting superpower that goes around lecturing the rest of the world about cutting emissions.” That’s entirely fatuous.

Indonesia is the coal-exporting superpower, but getting a stiff challenge from Australia. According to the World Coal Organization, Indonesia exported 383 million tons of coal in 2012 (380 million tons of steam coal and 3 million tons of met coal). Australia exported 301 million tons (159 million ton of met coal and 142 million tons of steam coal). Russia was third on the “superpower” list, with 116 million tons of steam coal and 18 million tons of met coal. The U.S., in fourth place, was at 114 million tons overall (51 million tons of steam coal and 63 million tons of met coal).

The U.S. plan to reduce coal consumption in electric generating plants doesn’t mean that the nation is abandoning domestic coal use. Far from it. Even with the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, coal will remain a major feature of the U.S. economy, vying with natural gas (another fossil fuel) for dominance in electric generation for decades to come, according to EIA..

As for exports, there is a good reason countries outside the Americas and Europe – particularly Asia and Africa – are digging and buying coal. They desperately need to expand access to electricity. That means it must be affordable. That means coal, whether mined domestically or bought from Indonesia, Australia, Russia, or the U.S. Were the U.S. to eschew exporting coal, it would have no impact on global coal consumption. It would only slightly shift the market, probably in Australia’s favor. As a Scientific American article recently reported from India, “Government leaders are unapologetic about India’s right to pollute, just as other nations have done in the quest for prosperity.”

The Post’s article is typical of much of its energy and environmental coverage, going back many years. As Joby Warrick visiting Gillette, Wyo., discovered to his astonishment, the Powder River Basin’s strength is the thickness of the coal bed underlying a thin, easily removed surface. So far, the Post’s coverage is characterized by the thinness of its content and the thick overburden of hyperbole, irrelevancies, and shoddy and unbalanced analysis.