A Seattle Times editorialist posted about not shipping coal through Washington state ports from Montana and Wyoming to China. Here’s his argument broken down to its syllogism:
1. Coal is dirty and bad for the environment, especially for global warming.
2. China burns lots of coal, enough to buy some from Montana and Wyoming.
3. We don’t want to be bad for the environment, so we should not participate in the shipping of coal to China.
To quote the author Lance Dickie, “Coal terminals are a false economy for the planet and local communities. If the coal is routed through Canada, as threatened, so be it.”
This paint-by-the-numbers argument is augmented helpfully by terms that cast a dim light on the entire operation. Lines such as, “Massive coal-export operations proposed… emit the gritty aura of trouble to come,” and “The idea seems strained on so many levels,” portray what we should be feeling as we read about this issue. Gritty auras aside, idea of new business involving a throughput of non-renewable energy should not scare away environmentalists. The alternative, denying port access, is tantamount to a trade embargo with a friendly nation on grounds of distaste.
Yet this is precisely what Mr. Dickie proposes. “Economists point out that a reliable source of cheap, low-sulfur coal offers no incentive for China to change its ways and look for environmentally friendly ways to make electricity.” These economists apparently argue against opening our ports to do exactly what they are lined up to do, the shipping of goods for a (taxable, job-producing, economically stimulating) fee.
An economist is quoted, “Dr. Thomas M. Power, of the University of Montana, wrote a compelling essay published by Sightline Institute, ‘The Greenhouse Gas Impact of Exporting Coal from the West Coast.’ As he reinforced in a telephone interview, ‘price matters,’ and to argue that economic and environmental costs are not important to the Chinese is laughable.”
This is true, of course. It is also true that the argument ignores the real issue being decided by Washington: Montana coal is going to China, and Washington can participate in that transaction, or not. Oregon would be happy to help, as would Canada and Alaska. The resistance starts to thin out when we talk about the marginal benefits of not participating in an economic transaction because we don’t like coal, and want to behave as if cap-and-trade legislation affects states as well as businesses.
Furthermore, while price matters to the Chinese as it does to everyone, denying energy would only make China more reliant on less friendly nations with dirtier-style excavation and shipping techniques. The United States has vigorous, and more importantly, enforced environmental regulations on its domestic energy production. To argue that other nations’ supply is better for the atmosphere than ours is ludicrous, and smacks of a NIMBY-style approach to environmental politics, while using global warming as a useful symbol.
Washington stands ready to help improve our nation’s trade balance with China, increase its own revenues, and provide jobs to its citizens. Some in Washington however, seem ready to nix the whole deal and stage an exercise in political protest at the current world energy situation. This is pie-in-the-sky moral posturing by a few noble but misguided souls, and should not impede the deal.
Let China pay us for once. Let the United States export energy for once. And while we’re at it, let’s stop trying to stymie energy supplies in order to make new energies appear. They will come, exactly when the technology advances to make them practical, and not before. In the meantime let’s participate in today’s economy.