Export of Coal and Natural Gas from the US?
Energy depletion makes this unlikely
There are claims that the coal and natural gas industries are readying massive exports of coal and natural gas from the US to Asia. Here is a recent article that profiles these proposals:
Fossil fuels make tracks through Oregon
By Camilla Mortensen
But these projects are unlikely to happen, and certainly cannot happen for long. Here is an explanation:
You cannot export fuel that does not exist
by Mark Robinowitz
Eugene Weekly's January 19, 2012 cover story "Coal Train" omitted geological facts in its profile of fossil fuel export plans.
The rush to export is based on the idea that there is abundant oversupply of energy resources that could be sent to Asia, but the geological reality suggests this is irrational exuberance.
Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute (www.postcarbon.org) was a keynote speaker at this year's Public Interest Environmental Law Conference. His book "Blackout: Coal, Climate, and the Last Energy Crisis" is a rare look at how coal supplies are smaller than most people think. There is enough to further foul the air but not enough to continue growth of combustion, certainly not hundreds of years worth. Peak Coal is either near or here.
A 2009 report from Clean Energy Action notes that "Between 2002 and 2008, while coal costs were rising dramatically, the US Geological Survey reduced the amount of economically accessible coal in the Gillette coal field of the Powder River Basin [in Wyoming] from 23 billion tons to 10 billion tons." This makes coal export less likely.
Furthermore, to export coal from Wyoming via Coos Bay, trains would have to move past Portland, which has much better export terminals. The Eugene to Coos Bay rail route is winding, hilly and slow. Heavy coal trains are more likely to use better tracks to reach ports with greater shipping capacity. The Army Corps of Engineers is reviewing a proposal to set up a transfer station from trains to barges for the Port of Morrow, next to the Boardman coal burning power station in eastern Oregon. If this is built it would avoid congested freight rails in the Port of Portland that are already clogged with imports from Chinese factories.
The Western Power Grid stretches from Tijuana to B.C. to Denver. Half of the electricity comes from coal which is still the backbone of the grid. Obama is pushing "clean coal" which is just greenwashing more coal combustion, including new "cleaner" coal burners.
One motive for the notorious Appalachian mountaintop removal is to extract thinner coal seams that are hard to mine via conventional techniques. Parts of the Appalachians have depleted coal mines with tailings that leach sulfuric acid into river headwaters (the Potomac River headwaters is one example).
Exaggerations of coal, natural gas and oil supplies not only boost stock values of energy companies but also underlie false estimates of future economic growth, since more fossil fuels would mean more economic activity. Heinberg's most recent book "The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality" is a useful antidote.
In July 2010, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. told a crowd at McDonald Theater that we could replace coal generated electricity with natural gas but political problems were the obstacles for the conversion. However, Peak Natural Gas in the US was 1973. The US imports about half of Canada's natural gas production. Liquid Natural Gas imports into the US have doubled in the past decade (although from only 1% to 2% of US consumption). Replacing coal electricity with natural gas is not possible unless we stop heating homes with gas.
Shale gas "fracking" has temporarily increased US production, but claims that this could provide 100 years of supply are extreme exaggerations. The toxic impacts of fracking have finally received public scrutiny -- the documentary Gasland is an excellent summary -- but the fact that fracking wells deplete much faster than conventional drilling has not gotten as much attention.
The only reason anyone is floating the idea of exporting US coal to China is the illusion that there is so much natural gas that we can replace some of the coal with gas. The Port of Morrow proposal for transfering coal from trains to barges is supposed to become active in 2016. Geologist Art Berman, an industry insider who has examined shale gas fracking http://petroleumtruth.blogspot.com, estimates that the fracking bubble may burst around that time. When shale gas is no longer a bubble, plans to shift more coal to gas will go up in smoke and the export proposals go away, too.
In the winter of 2010 / 2011, natural gas delivery systems broke down in New Mexico during a cold snap when there wasn't enough gas to go around. Some small towns were shut off from gas supplies.
The new LNG import terminal in Baja California is providing gas for US electric generators. Supporters had tried San Francisco and Humboldt Bay before building in Mexico. As gas supplies tighten there will be more pressure for LNG imports.
In 2001, Enron partnered with Coburg Power to build a huge natural gas powered electric generator north of Eugene. It would have been at the intersection of the main electric power line for Lane County where it passes over the natural gas pipeline. After Enron pulled out (they went bankrupt for other reasons), I asked the primary promoter where the station's fuel would come from. He replied it would tap into the pipeline. I then asked where extra fuel would come from since the gas in the pipeline was already heating existing homes and businesses and he had no reply. Coburg Power never got built.
If there is any export of coal and / or natural gas through Coos Bay it is unlikely to last long since we cannot export fuel that does not exist. Will the federal government even allow fossil fuel exports as the permanent energy shock intensifies, since export would let US cities have brownouts and blackouts to provide power for Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing?
Fossil fuel depletion will force reductions in energy use. Hoping to switch from one poison to another delays the inevitable "power down." Renewable energy is great but it could power a smaller, steady state economy, not the illusion of "green growth."
The author has used solar energy for two decades and has tracked fossil fuel depletion since 1986.
REPORT: Will Natural Gas Fuel America in the 21st Century?
Published May 29, 2011
In this groundbreaking report, David Hughes shatters the myth (advanced by industry, government, and many environmental organizations) that domestic natural gas can be a "bridge fuel" from high-carbon sources of energy like coal and oil to a renewable energy future.
ASPO-USA in the Media
A June 26 New York Times article raising questions about the true cost and prospective profits of developing shale gas has set off a firestorm of public scrutiny and controversy within the industry. ASPO-USA Director Art Berman was consulted for and quoted in the article, and has been featured in follow-up interviews and commentary (including this segment on CNBC's "The Kudlow Report").
ASPO-USA has been leveraging the opportunity to focus media attention on a fundamental premise of ASPO-USA's work—that fossil fuels, including natural gas, face mounting supply challenges amidst rising demand, and America should not bet our future on hopes of endless cheap energy.