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Science & Environment

Is It Morally Wrong For U.S. To Export Coal?


Is it morally wrong for the U.S. to export coal? That's a question some people are asking in the Pacific Northwest. The region has become a transit route for coal dug up in states such as Wyoming and shipped to Asia.

Those experts are growing fast. NPR's Martin Kaste has this story about the backlash.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The Army Corps of Engineers, along with Washington State and county officials, held seven public hearings this month in advance of the environmental impact statement for a proposed coal terminal. It sounds pretty dry and yet the meetings attracted more than 8,000 people.

PETER KNUTESON: End of the line, folks. All the way down and to the right. This is the front of the line.

KASTE: Twenty-three hundred people just in Seattle. It may be only one coal terminal, but environmentalists here see it as a big step in the wrong direction.

KNUTESON: We're talking about going off the fiscal cliff. This is going off the ecological cliff.

KASTE: Seattle fisherman Pete Knuteson(ph) addressed a rally of coal export opponents before the hearing. Like many people here, Knuteson takes the global perspective, as in global warming.

KNUTESON: If we look at the consequences of this coal proposal from the broadest possible perspective, the only moral option is to reject it. To push this forward would be to commit a crime against the future.

KASTE: Coal is falling out of fashion in the U.S. In part, because natural gas has become so cheap, but also because places like Seattle and California have policies to reduce their consumption of power generated by coal. They want to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, but those gases will still be released if the coal goes to China instead.

MAYOR GARY JENSEN: I don't think anyone with any intelligence would tell you that burning coal is a great thing.

KASTE: Gary Jensen is mayor of the town of Ferndale up the coast near Canada where the export terminal is planned.

JENSEN: We can't just suddenly shut off the coal. China is still emerging and they're trying to develop their economy, so I have a concern. I'd like to see us burn less coal, but this isn't the way to do it.

KASTE: Jensen says if the coal doesn't go out through Washington ports, it'll just leave through British Columbia and the Canadians will get the shipping jobs instead. But at the public hearing in Seattle, that was the minority view.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: If this is some kind of borderline personality disorder that these people have that are calling for this?

KASTE: Opponents came out in force, organized by environmental groups. Only occasionally did supporters make it to the microphones and usually it was union workers like Lee Nugent(ph).

LEE NUGENT: What we haven't addressed is why China's using all of our coal. One of the reasons they're using all of our coal is because everybody here is buying Chinese-made products and not American-made products.

KASTE: These hearings by themselves won't decide the coal terminal's fate. As one staffer with the Army Corps of Engineers said, this is a public comment process, not an election. But Beth Dolio(ph), head of the anti-coal export campaign, believes her side's heavy turnout matters.

BETH DOLIO: We're outnumbering them 10 to 1, so we're hoping that that is going to make a difference, not just in the regulators' minds, the decision-maker's minds, but in people's minds.

KASTE: Building public opinion is important because this controversy is not going away soon. Mining companies and railroads are now running TV ads promoting the terminal and the Sierra Club has responded with its own spot. As more Northwestern ports consider getting into the coal exporting business, both sides are digging in for a long-term fight over whether the global climate trumps local economics. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.