Montana Coal (and Why We Are Sending it to China)

Montana, although not the largest state in the production of coal, has the United States largest coal reserves, with 119 billion tons. This reserve is about ¼ of the reserves in the country. However, Montana is not using this coal for fuel, or for anything useful. In recent years, the US has turned to natural gas for its energy needs instead of coal, so these reserves are left largely untouched. In an effort to make money, and because of the surplus of coal reserves, Montana has been planning to sell their stock to China, which has been in the process of making coal plants because of the dangerous business that has become coal mining in China. Inefficient mine structure, coal transportation causing traffic and large-scale deaths in China coal mining have led to China looking elsewhere for coal. Wyoming has already gotten into the global coal market, which runs out of British Colombia.

The proposed shipping lanes would open near Bellingham, Washington and would be controlled by Peabody Energy, largest private-sector coal company in the world. The shipping would be up to Peabody’s project-partner, SSA Marine. This proposed port, called the Gateway Pacific Terminal Facility, would be in Bellingham/Cherry Point Washington. Ambre Energy and Arch Coal (2nd largest coal producer in the US) are also proposing a terminal in Longview Washington.

Location of the Powder River Basin – home to largest coal reserves in the US

The coal for these terminals would come from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming. The residents in these areas are worried about detrimental environmental and public health effects, like the dangers to marine ecosystems from pollution and air quality. Moving coal from MT and WY will prompt an upgrade in railroad infrastructure, leading to more pollution and negative effects on the environment. The construction of the terminals will cause an increased level of marine traffic. Both of these transportation venues could cause a catastrophic coal spill, as there are more and more boats and trains traveling through these areas.

Map of railways to the coast from the PRB

These problems affecting the population of coastal towns like Cherry Point and Longview are important, but coal production, transportation and consumption have large effects on global warming and climate change as well. Transportation, due to the energy needed to construct and operate trains and barges, has an impact through greenhouse gas emissions, which leads to global warming. In 2007, 13% of US CO2 emissions were from coal combustion in the Powder River Basin alone (in Montana and Wyoming). With the reserves being in the 120 billion ton range, these exports would produce 240 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. With all of this pollution comes coal dust – something that can actually be seen, touched and inhaled by the human population.

Morrow Pacific Project by Ambre Energy – proposed ports on the Columbia River

With all of this development and transportation of coal, one might think that lessening coal combustion in the United States would be a good thing – but that would be wrong. Research from NOAA suggests that air pollution from Asia, which contains coal dust, travels across the Pacific Ocean and lands on Western shores, affecting Western coastal states and North/South Western states like Montana. This pollution from Asia contributes about 20% of the total pollution for these Western Areas. This happens through coal combustion: combustion releases pollutants like nitrous oxide and VOCs (volatile organic compounds) through regular combustion process, and these chemicals contribute to ground level ozone. Ground level ozone affects air quality and public health.

Some say that China buying coal will increase the price of coal in the global market, forcing nations to switch from coal to natural gas, wind or solar energy. This means less greenhouse gas emissions through the burning of natural gas. Other officials say that since coal production will increase in China and Mongolia due to need, coal will be cheaper globally because Asian companies will stop shipping it from the United States. However, this will cause cheap coal to be burned for a long time, causing higher carbon emissions.

So we can see negative environmental impact on the United States through pollution and environmental degradation. Also, the increased coal combustion means increased pollution worldwide, and the traveling coal dust poses a public health risk to the Western United States.

Coal dust

Until September 12th 2013, this was a viable problem for environmental protesters and the residents in these areas. However, on September 12th, China announced that they are banning new coal-fired power plants from being built in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou in order to combat air pollution. This year, Beijing air quality levels skyrocketed to well over “hazardous” levels on the Air Quality Index, so this move to stop the production of coal plants is seemingly a move to lower pollution and improve air quality.

What happens next? Environmental groups have been putting pressure on coal companies to stop the transportation of coal to China, but what happens now that China has banned new coal plants? Perhaps the Asian market will continue to accept coal at a lower rate. Peabody Energy is working in China and Mongolia on coal development, so they will make some money from that, but there will not be as much coal exports going to China through channels like the one in British Columbia. However, this ban only applies to new plants, so the existing coal plants will likely be used. Blue Skies Campaign, a volunteer-based organization based out of Missoula, arranges sit-ins in Helena to stop train movement, and succeeded last summer and a few weeks ago (they focus on stopping coal exports). Until more firm plans are made, we will just have to wait and see the fate of coal.

For more information about coal trains and environmental implications, click here.

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