Jun. 8th, 2011

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Our Most Urgent Climate Struggles—And How We Might Win Them


There’s a pickaxe in the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming, one of the world’s richest deposits of coal. If we’re going to have any hope ofslowing climate change, that coal—and so all that future carbon dioxide—needs to stay in the ground. In precisely the way we hope Brazil guards the Amazon rainforest, that massive sponge for carbon dioxide absorption, we need to stand sentinel over all that coal.

Geography to the rescue. You still have to get that coal to market, and at the moment, there’s no port capable of handling the huge increase in traffic it would represent.

Doing so, however, would cost someone some money. At current prices the value of that coal may be in the trillions, and that kind of money creates immense pressure. Earlier this year, President Obama signed off on the project, opening a huge chunk of federal land to coal mining. It holds an estimated 750 million tons worth of burnable coal. That’s the equivalent of opening 300 new coal-fired power plants. In other words, we’re talking about staggering amounts of new CO2 heading into the atmosphere to further heat the planet.

Dirty Coal, photo by Rainforest Action Network

Rainforest Action Network activists protest bank financing of dirty coal at Duke Energy's Cliffside coal plant in Cliffside, North Carolina. Much like these demonstrators, citizens all over the U.S. are calling for progressive action toward addressing climate change.

As Eric de Place of the Sightline Institute put it, “That’s more carbon pollution than all the energy—from planes, factories, cars, power plants, etc.—used in an entire year by all 44 nations in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean combined.” Not what you’d expect from a president who came to office promising that his policies would cause the oceans to slow their rise.

But if Obama has admittedly opened the mine gate, it's geography to the rescue. You still have to get that coal to market, and “market” in this case means Asia, where the demand for coal is growing fastest. The easiest and cheapest way to do that—maybe the only way at current prices—is to take it west to the Pacific where, at the moment, there’s no port capable of handling the huge increase in traffic it would represent.

And so a mighty struggle is beginning, with regional groups rising to the occasion. Climate Solutions and other environmentalists of the northwest are moving to block port-expansion plans in Longview and Bellingham, Washington, as well as in Vancouver, British Columbia. Since there are only so many possible harbors that could accommodate the giant freighters needed to move the coal, this might prove a winnable battle, thoughthe power of money that moves the White House is now being brought to bear on county commissions and state houses. Count on this: It will be a titanic fight.

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