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China has seen the future, and it is coal

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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Cowlitz County in Washington state is across the Columbia River from Portland, Ore., which promotes mass transit and urban density and is a green reproach to the rest of us. Recently, Cowlitz did something that might make Portland wonder whether shrinking its carbon footprint matters. Cowlitz approved construction of a coal export terminal from which millions of tons of U.S. coal could be shipped to Asia annually.

Both Oregon and Washington are curtailing the coal-fired generation of electricity, but the future looks to greens as black as coal. The future looks a lot like the past.

Historian William Rosen (who wrote "The Most Powerful Idea in the World," about the invention of the steam engine) says coal was Europe's answer to the 12th-century "wood crisis," when Christians leveled much forestation to destroy sanctuaries for pagan worship and to open up farmland. Population increase meant more wooden carts, houses and ships, so wood became an expensive way to heat dwellings or cook. By 1230, England had felled so many trees it was importing most of its timber and was turning to coal.

"It was not until the 1600s," Rosen writes, "that English miners found their way down to the level of the water table and started needing a means to get at the coal below it." In time, steam engines were invented to pump out water and lift out coal. The engines were fired by coal.

Today, about half of America's and the world's electricity is generated by coal, the substance that, since it fueled the Industrial Revolution, has been a crucial source of energy. Over the past eight years, it has been the world's fastest-growing source of fuel. The New York Times recently reported ("Booming China Is Buying Up World's Coal," Nov. 22) about China's ravenous appetite for coal, which is one reason coal's price has doubled in five years.

Half of the 6 billion tons of coal burned globally each year is burned in China. A spokesman for the Sierra Club, which in recent years has helped to block construction of 139 proposed coal-fired plants in America, says, "This is undermining everything we've accomplished." America, say environmentalists, is exporting global warming.

Can something really be exported if it supposedly affects the entire planet? Never mind. America has partners in this crime against nature, if such it is. One Australian company proposes to build the Cowlitz facility; another has signed a $60 billion contract to supply Chinese power plants with Australian coal.

The Times says ships - all burning hydrocarbons - hauled about 690 million tons of thermal coal this year, up from 385 million in 2001. China, which imported about 150 million tons this year, was a net exporter of coal until 2009, sending abroad its low-grade coal and importing higher-grade, low-sulfur coal from, for example, the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana. Because much of China's enormous coal reserves is inland, far from coastal factories, it is sometimes more economical to import American and Australian coal.

Writing in the Atlantic on China's appetite for coal and possible aptitude for using the old fuel in new, cleaner ways, James Fallows quotes a Chinese official saying that the country's transportation system is the only serious limit on how fast power companies increase their use of coal. One reason China is building light-rail systems is to get passenger traffic out of the way of coal trains.

Fallows reports that 15 years from now China expects that 350 million people will be living in cities that do not exist yet. This will require adding to China's electrical system a capacity almost as large as America's current capacity. The United States, China, Russia and India have 40 percent of the world's population and 60 percent of its coal.

A climate scientist told Fallows that stabilizing the carbon-dioxide concentration in the atmosphere would require the world to reduce its emissions to Kenya's level - for America, a 96 percent reduction. Nations with hundreds of millions of people in poverty would, Fallows says, have to "forgo the energy-intensive path toward wealth that the United States has traveled for so many years."

In his new political science treatise ("Don't Vote - It Just Encourages the Bastards"), P.J. O'Rourke says, "There are 1.3 billion people in China, and they all want a Buick." So "go tell 1.3 billion Chinese they can never have a Buick." If the future belongs to electric cars, those in China may run on energy currently stored beneath Wyoming and Montana.

georgewill@washpost.com


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