Building America’s economy while supporting world development through coal exports is an activity conducted with high standards for environmental responsibility.
In its 2013 report on American energy, the Bipartisan Policy Center concluded: “The current rigorous permitting process (in the United States) can provide ample opportunity to identify and address local environmental concerns liked to the construction and operation of new (coal) export facilities in the United States.” Often, such local concerns turn out to be unfounded. For instance, a detailed study on particulate emissions from coal trains was conducted in Australia in 2012. The study concluded that particulate matter measured in the air near trains was very low. Furthermore, concentrations of particulate matter near loaded and unloaded coal train passes were comparable to those near ordinary freight trains.
The Bipartisan Policy Center also concluded: “We do not believe that impeding the global trade of fossil fuels is an effective or efficient means of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.” The reason for this conclusion is simple: If other countries don’t buy their coal from the United States, they will simply buy it from somewhere else.
Analysis by Energy Policy Research Foundation, Inc., using the “Merit Order Curve” of global coal production shows that the U.S. is a relatively low cost producer including rail and shipment costs to Asian destinations. Coal from the Powder River Basin can be produced and delivered to Asian markets for approximately $60 per metric ton ($54 per short ton). However, these shipments will not set the price. The U.S. is an infra-marginal coal producer, but the world price is set by the marginal producer which is likely to remain between $90 to $110 per metric ton. As a result, U.S. production will merely replace higher cost production with minimal or no effect on world coal prices. Neither net world coal combustion nor GHG emissions will change as a result of an expansion of U.S. coal exports.
Click chart to enlarge
Additionally, the coal-fueled power plants being constructed overseas today are far more efficient than those constructed decades ago. Supercritical and Ultra-Supercritical power plants offer improved efficiencies that result in carbon dioxide emission rates that are up to 25 percent below the average of the existing U.S. coal fleet, and more than 40 percent below the oldest plants being replaced. East Asian nations such as China have taken the lead in building these supercritical units and now house upwards of 60 percent of the world’s developing fleet of advanced power plants. According to the head of the International Energy Agency: “A single, large coal plant, if built with the best-available technology, can reduce emissions by the annual equivalent of taking a million cars off the road compared to the subcritical coal-plant technology still prevalent in most countries.”
Traditional coal-fueled power plants have also become increasingly clean with respect to sulfur and nitrogen oxide emissions. In the United States, coal generates 170 percent more electricity than it did in 1970, but total emissions of sulfur and nitrogen oxide have decreased by around 90 percent. Clean coal technologies are already at work to improve coal’s environmental profile.