NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) — Coal from Appalachia rumbles into this port city, 150 railroad cars at a time, bound for the belly of the massive cargo ship Prime Lily. The ship soon sets sail for South America, its 80,000 tons of coal destined for power plants and factories, an export of American energy — and pollution.
In the U.S., this coal and the carbon dioxide it will eventually release into the atmosphere are some of the unwanted leftovers of an America going greener. With the country moving to cleaner natural gas, the Obama administration wants to reduce power plant pollution to make good on its promise to the world to cut emissions.
Yet the estimated 228,800 tons of carbon dioxide contained in the coal aboard the Prime Lily equals the annual emissions of a small American power plant. It's leaving this nation's shores, but not the planet.
"This is the single biggest flaw in U.S. climate policy," said Roger Martella, the former general counsel at the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush. "Although the administration is moving forward with climate change regulations at home, we don't consider how policy decisions in the United States impact greenhouse gas emissions in other parts of the world."
This fossil fuel trade, which has soared under President Barack Obama, threatens to undermine his strategy to reduce the gases blamed for global warming. It also reveals a little-discussed side effect of countries acting alone on a global issue. As the U.S. tries to set a global example by reducing demand for fossil fuels at home, American energy companies are sending more dirty fuels than ever to other parts of the world, exports worth billions of dollars every year. In some cases, these castoffs of America's clean energy push are ending up in places with more lax environmental standards, or where governments are resistant to tackling the emissions responsible for global warming.
It's a global shell game on fossil fuels that at the very least makes the U.S. appear to be making more progress on global warming than it actually is, because it shifts some of the pollution — and the burden for cleaning it up — onto another country's balance sheet.
"It's not taking responsibility," said Thomas Power, a research professor at the University of Montana who has worked for environmental groups and clean energy foundations and has pushed for a more honest accounting of emissions. "It's shifting the responsibility to someone else."
With companies looking to double America's coal exports, the nation's growing position in the global energy trade could make global warming worse, fueling the world's demand for coal when many experts say most fossil fuels should remain in the ground to avert the most disastrous effects of climate change.
In 2012, about 9 percent of worldwide coal exports originated in the U.S., the latest data available.
White House officials say the U.S. will continue to be a small player with a negligible global footprint and the best way to address global warming is to reduce coal's use globally. In the meantime, they're considering adding crude oil and natural gas to the menu of U.S. energy exports shipped abroad.
"There may be a very marginal increase in coal exports caused by our climate policies," said Rick Duke, Obama's deputy climate adviser, in an interview with The Associated Press. "Given that coal supply is widely available from many sources, our time is better spent working on leading toward a global commitment to cut carbon pollution on the demand side."
But as companies plan new coal export terminals, the Obama administration has resisted evaluating the global fallout of those decisions.
It says that if the U.S. didn't supply the coal, another country would.
In Oregon and Washington state, where three proposed terminals would double U.S. coal exports, the Democratic governors are pressing the administration to assess the global-warming impact of that coal when it is burned abroad. The administration has refused to do so.
Guidance drafted by White House officials in 2010 did outline how broadly federal agencies should look at carbon emissions from U. S. projects. Four years later, that guidance is still under review.
Carbon dioxide, regardless of whether it enters the atmosphere in Germany, India, or Brazil contributes to the sea level rise and in some cases severe weather that is linked to global warming.
The nexus of the challenge, and its international conundrum, can be found here, in Norfolk, Virginia, a low-lying coastal community that exports more coal than any place in the U.S. One of the region's three coal export terminals, Dominion Terminal Associates, says that it supplies "Coal for the World." At the same time, Norfolk is already experiencing one of the fastest rates of sea level rise in the country.
"Ultimately we would like to leave the coal in the ground. That is the best place for it," said Joe Cook, a local resident and Sierra Club activist. He is fighting a much more local side effect of coal exports: dust released as it travels along rail lines, is dumped in massive piles by the dock and loaded onto ships. Cook believes that the dust is threatening people's health.
When asked about the emissions from exports harming the planet, he said, "We have no control over that."
As for the president, in recent speeches promoting his plan to reduce global warming Obama has highlighted the progress his administration has made driving down emissions at home.
"Together, we've held our carbon emissions to levels not seen in about 20 years," he recently told the League of Conservation Voters. "Since 2006, no country on earth has reduced its total carbon pollution by as much as the United States."
But that's only part of the story.
The U.S. has the largest recoverable coal reserves in the world. Over the past six years, as the country has cut its own coal consumption by 195 million tons, about 20 percent of that coal was shipped abroad, according to an AP analysis of Energy Department data.
Last year, global coal use grew by 3 percent, faster than any other fossil fuel, according to the 2014 BP Statistical Review of World Energy.
And while less coal being burned here has helped the power sector reduce carbon emissions by 12 percent and left more U.S. coal in the ground, a growing share is finding its way to the rest of the world.
The proportion is expected to get larger as global demand for coal rises and the U.S. continues to clean up its power plants, boost energy efficiency and move to less-polluting sources of energy such as wind and solar. The latest EPA proposal on power plants envisions even less coal being used to make electricity.
The Obama administration, and the world, account only for coal burned inside their own borders when charting their progress on global warming.
"Energy exports bit by bit are chipping away at gains we are making on carbon dioxide domestically," said Shakeb Afsah, who runs an energy consulting firm in Bethesda, Maryland. Pollution from coal exports has wiped out all the carbon pollution savings the U.S. achieved by switching from coal to natural gas, according to an analysis he published earlier this year. A 2012 report from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in England said the carbon contained in coal exports put back half the pollution.
On the other side of the Atlantic, in a town on the edge of Germany's coal-mining region, sits a new power plant burning some of America's coal. The 750-megawatt Trianel power plant in Luenen relies completely on coal imports, about half from the U.S.
"American coal is simply very attractive for us because of its price, and therefore we're using a high percentage of it," Stefan Paul, executive director of the Trianel Kohlekraftwerk Luenen GmbH & Co. plant, told AP.
During a recent visit by an AP reporter, workers unloaded South African coal from two barges docked in an adjacent canal. The canal was built in 1914 to send coal from the Ruhr Valley through Rotterdam to ports overseas. Now the coal comes the other way.
German coal mining has been a dying tradition. The government will end subsidies in 2018, effectively killing it.
However, Germany is experiencing a resurgence in coal-fired power. Five German coal plants have been built since 2008, and more are coming. While the new plants are more efficient and much cleaner than older plants being phased out, they are also larger and are replacing some of the nuclear power that the country has been phasing out since the Fukushima disaster in Japan.
The result: In 2013, Germany's emissions of carbon dioxide grew by 1.2 percent.
This has happened even as the European continent has clamped down on the emissions blamed for global warming by increasing the use of renewable energy and instituting a cap-and-trade pollution system similar to one the U.S. Congress rejected in Obama's first term.
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