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The energy policy of the incoming Congress ostensibly seeks to lessen America's dependence on imported fossil fuels.  As an example, here's Republican Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming on Powder River Basin coal, emphasizing "the importance of Powder River Basin coal to jobs and the economy as well as our energy security of the nation."

There's only one problem: it's not true.  Wyoming coal will be shipped overseas to China instead of generating American jobs and energy security, as George F. Will chortles: China has seen the future, and it is coal.  

Even as Appalachian mountains are destroyed and Wyoming's Powder River Basin dismantled, Arch and Peabody seek coal exporting deals with Asia:

From atop the 25-story coal silo overlooking Arch Coal Inc.'s Black Thunder mine in northeast Wyoming, a seemingly endless string of rail cars stretches into the horizon. More than 20 trains arrive a day, each a mile and a half long....

Almost every bit of coal that leaves is headed east, where the vast majority of the nation's 1,000-plus fiery coal boilers await their next feeding. But trains could soon start heading west — to dump their cargo on ships headed to the Far East. Miners here in the coal-rich Powder River Basin, the self-proclaimed energy capital of America, have plans to tap the Mother of All Energy Users: China.

getimage[1]There's only one problem: West Coast port city bottlenecks.  Currently, coal is shipped via Vancouver, British Columbia. The coal barons want an American port.  They've been scouting Pacific Northwest locations for some time, but Tacoma (Washington state) and Portland (Oregon) have turned them down.

In November, Washington state's Cowlitz County commissioners approved a coal export facility.  Tuesday, the Washington Department of Ecology joined environmental groups to appeal the county's decision.  The state's decision is a setback, not a final thumbs down for the Cowlitz County project.

If America has a 200-year or 400-year supply of coal, then export of American coal makes sense in a Republican kind of way (enrich private companies, d*mn the environmental consequences).  But what if there's less coal? A lot less coal? A largely overlooked study this summer stated that peak coal would be reached in the year 2011.


Peak coal

Oil reserves are generally perceived to be overstated, but coal reserves are also overstated.

Enzi's fellow Republican Senator echoes the calls for "energy security". Consider a recent sample by Senator John Barrasso (R-WY): "Washington should lead the way on energy – not lock it up.  If we produce more American energy, we will grow our economy and strengthen our national security.  I will continue to fight to see that we create more red, white, blue and green energy jobs across our country.”

(Note the sheer cliche density: 1. American energyy 2. strengthens national security and creates 3. red, white, and blue (patriotic) (and 4. bonus point) green 5. jobs.)

Again, there's a disconnect between rhetoric and reality.  Shipping Powder River Basin coal to China doesn't generate much in the way of jobs at home, and it doesn't help America's energy security; if anything, our national security interests are shortchanged by selling coal to China.

The solution is obvious, if energy security means anything at all.  Just as the United States has a Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the country should also have strategic coal reserves -- coal that is not to be mined except in case of a national emergency, after consideration of all environmental impacts.  Last year, China began to implement a strategic coal reserve plan, but the United States doesn't have anything similar.  A Strategic Coal Reserve should be located on federal land rather than private land so as not to run afoul of eminent domain laws.  Almost all of the Powder River Basin is federal land, and one government study concluded that it has 58 percent of all coal on federal land (roughly 1/3 of all coal in the US is located on federal lands and leased to private companies, often at below-market rates).

If "energy security" means anything at all to Republicans, they'll start with establishing a Strategic Coal Reserve instead of permitting that security to be sold to China.

Originally posted to RLMiller on Fri Dec 31, 2010 at 12:45 PM PST.

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