Wyoming's largest coal producer has just placed a $2 million bet on the controversial Gateway Pacific Coal Terminal, a facility proposed to export American coal to be burned in China. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is reviewing the environmental impacts of the proposed project, which would be massive. This permit should be denied because exporting coal is against our national interest.
American coal mining is a dying industry as the nation turns away from coal as an energy source. As Pope Francis proclaimed in his recent encyclical, "We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels — especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas — needs to be progressively replaced without delay." American businesses and local and state governments are already weaning themselves off coal. An 1800s-era industrial behemoth, the coal industry is on its last legs as mining companies file for bankruptcy and utilities scale back the numbers of coal-fired power plants.
The Gateway Pacific Coal Terminal would extend the life of tottering coal mines in the United States by shipping American coal overseas to be burned. This reverses hard-won carbon pollution progress achieved here at home. It's not like coal that's burned in China doesn't contribute to global warming.
In fact, burning American coal in China is even worse. China has fewer environmental regulations to safeguard air quality, and sending millions of tons of coal overseas by ship requires the burning of additional massive quantities of diesel to fuel super-sized freighters.
Burning all that American coal in China ensures that global climate problems will worsen, accelerating the desertification of the breadbasket regions that feed the world's human population; creating more catastrophic storms like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy that devastate coastal cities; increasing the number of forest fires; and killing coral reefs, signaling a loss of productive ocean ecosystems. Our oceans are a major food source (greater than 20 percent of animal protein) for more than a third of the world's population, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization's The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report. When you balance out the huge job and economic losses from climate-related problems against the jobs generated at coal mines, it becomes obvious that mining and exporting American coal is a losing proposition.
Wouldn't it be smarter to transition to clean, renewable energy sources today and save ourselves the worsening climate catastrophe that impacts every other sector of the global economy? Or should we keep the coal industry on life support, extending a relatively limited number of mining jobs so we can continue to destroy the planet for everyone else?
There is a limited supply of lucrative jobs to be had at coal mines and power plants. The same can be said for meth labs. But each type of operation is damaging to society as a whole.
The Dust Bowl signaled an ecological crisis, and the federal government responded by creating the Soil Conservation Service, bought up excess livestock for slaughter and planted over 200 million trees to create shelterbelts to protect farmland soils from wind erosion. Today we are in the midst of a climate crisis, and the federal government needs to respond decisively to take corrective action.
Let's phase out coal mining and keep it in the ground. Federal agencies must now lead by redirecting subsidies for fossil fuels and using them instead to retrain coal miners and power-plant workers and pay them to build and install affordable, subsidized solar panels on every building that can accommodate them. Let's pay miners and coal plant workers the same wages they're paid today, and instead of digging our climate hole deeper, they can build a clean and sustainable energy future where America can lead. This effort will require a retooling of our electrical grid — a major undertaking, to be sure. So let's get started right away and harness American ingenuity to overcome the engineering challenges.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature recently listed 1,400 species endangered by global climate change. As we continue to burn fossil fuels that destroy the Earth's climate, we humans can no longer deny that we too have become one of these endangered species as a result of our harmful addiction to fossil fuels. Let's redirect our efforts away from making these problems worse, and toward building clean energy solutions.
Coal is a dirty word. A four-letter word. It's time to delete it from the vocabulary of American energy production so the only people who use it are research geologists in university settings and historians.
This piece has been corrected and revised to properly source the data above referring to oceans as a major food source.
Molvar is the Sagebrush Sea Campaign Director for WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit environmental group working to protect wildlife, wild places, wild rivers and the health of the American West.