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Originally published Saturday, July 28, 2012 at 8:02 PM

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Corrected version

Shipping coal to Asia: Should we do it?

There's no doubting that coal exporting is big business, with construction jobs to build the terminals and fewer operating jobs. But, will it be worth it?

Special to The Seattle Times

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Here's a suggestion for you millennials contemplating how to pay off your student loans before you turn 70: Get into the soon-to-be-growing field of climate economics.

There's no serious debate among climate scientists now that climate change is real, caused by humans and getting worse faster than expected. The dismal science is far behind in exploring the consequences of a rapidly changing planet to the economy.

We're especially unaware of what economists call "externalities," the largely invisible rewards or costs from a project or activity that aren't on the balance sheet of the economic actor carrying it out.

Year-round navigation of the Arctic Ocean would be a positive externality of climate change. The negatives are far greater. But this is mostly unexplored territory in a society that places so much emphasis on costs and bottom lines.

I think about this as the battle over shipping coal to Asia through Northwest ports really begins.

Up until now, communities and environmental groups have had the public square pretty much to themselves, opposing the development of up to six coal-export terminals in Washington and Oregon. They have cited dirty coal's health risks as well as the increased numbers of trains that would bring coal from Wyoming and Montana.

That's changing. Last week the Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports was announced. Its members include not just coal companies and railroads, but labor unions and chambers of commerce.

The alliance frames itself as "a nonprofit trade organization that is advancing responsible development of export infrastructure to create jobs, reindustrialize the economy and protect the environment." But it is mostly the muscle to turn the Pacific Northwest into a key coal-shipping point.

Among its first public activities will be a major advertising campaign. But we can bet it will be lobbying hard behind the scenes, too.

Spokeswoman Lauri Hennessey said, "China, India and other developing countries in Asia are going to continue to use coal. They're developing some technology to lower emissions. ... We are concerned about the environmental impacts. But they are going to need the power and we can supply it in an environmentally sustainable way."

She added that if we don't ship the coal, those nations will get it somewhere else.

The group is framing its message in an appealing way, around increasing American exports, building infrastructure, enhancing tax revenue and adding "thousands of new jobs."

Hennessey admits the "thousands" is a ballpark figure. But there's no doubting that coal exporting is big business, with construction jobs to build the terminals and fewer operating jobs.

For example, the Lambert's Point terminal in Norfolk, Va., one of the largest coal-shipping points in the world, has twin rotary dumpers that allow it to fill two vessels at once. It operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The United States exported nearly $16 billion in coal and petroleum gases in 2011, with Brazil, the Netherlands and Japan being the biggest customers. Coal represents the largest commodity transported by American railroads. The world's largest coal reserves are found in the United States.

In another time, before climate change and 7 billion people on the planet, this would be an easy decision. Developing nations want to industrialize and improve their living standards. They're willing to pay for a commodity we have in abundance. We gain exports and jobs.

But these are not ordinary times and the calculus is far more complex.

According to the Sightline Institute, if all six Northwest terminals were built, they would have the capacity to ship 145 million tons of coal annually. That translates into 262 million tons of carbon dioxide a year when burned into the atmosphere. For comparison's sake, it's as much as a year's worth of gasoline burned in all the Western states plus the Dakotas.

Put another way, hydrocarbons in the ground are safe, although not profitable. Extracting, exporting and burning hydrocarbons is highly profitable. But we can only do so much of this before climate change's trajectory becomes not only inevitable but catastrophic.

Unfortunately these consequences, which only begin with higher food prices from droughts, burned subdivisions near forest fires and taxpayer costs from heat-buckled highways, are externalities. They're not part of the equation where hard export cash rules.

Our leaders have shamefully failed to tell us the truth about climate change. We have failed to act. We have not led in such simple ways as taxing carbon, which would have provided incentives for renewable, clean fuels and conservation. The world would have followed America's lead, bought our clean-energy exports.

Our grandchildren will curse us.

So it's ironic that if the coal terminals are stopped, it won't be because of the existential danger of continuing to burn greenhouse gases. Nor will it promote the larger, urgent discussion we should be undertaking.

It will be because of simple NIMBY sentiment in neighborhoods, cities and towns.

Meanwhile, the rush to the tipping point will continue, with only quick profits in our clouded vision.

You may reach Jon Talton at On Twitter @jontalton.

Information in this article, originally published July 28, 2012, was corrected Aug. 1, 2012. A previous version of this story said that if all six Northwest terminals were built they would have the capacity to ship 145 million tons of coal annually, translating into 262 tons of carbon dioxide a year when burned into the atmosphere. That actually would translate into 262 million tons of carbon dioxide.

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About Jon Talton

Jon Talton comments on economic trends and turning points, putting them into context with people, place and the environment in the Pacific Northwest


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