U.S. Coal to China Equals 7,000 Mile Supply Chain

In 2009 China became a net-importer of coal. In 2006 the New York Times reported that China was already using “more coal than the United States, the European Union and Japan combined.” Today the amount of coal demanded in China is greater than ever. The coast of China is 7,000 miles (11,265 km) from the land-locked Powder-River Basin coal deposits of eastern Montana and Wyoming, U.S.A. (For information on the developing dispute over the proposed Longview coal export terminal please read “True Colors: Ambre Is Not Green”.)

Coal mined from the Powder-River Basin is low BTU coal, meaning more coal must be mined, transported, and burned in order to obtain the same energy as high BTU coal. The lower the BTU rating of coal the greater the emissions from burning compared to high BTU coal. Put simply, to receive the same amount of energy more low BTU coal must be burned and more emissions will be released.

Considerable concern is already being given to the emissions from coal today. The Center for Health and the Global Environment, Harvard Medical School, released “Full Cost Accounting for the Life Cycle of Coal” in January, 2011, stating in regard to air pollution from the combustion of coal:

“Lung disease: Particulates and oxides of nitrogen and sulfur kill over 24,000 people annually, including 2,800 from lung cancer (2005). Heart disease: 38,200 non-fatal heart attacks annually.”

These numbers are from only the combustion of coal. The mining and transportation of coal also contribute to the decline of human and environmental health. Almost 1,400 miles of the 7,000 mile supply chain is by rail in the U.S. The Sierra Club article “Digging a Hole for China” states:

“Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway estimates that each car loses a minimum of 500 pounds of coal for every 500 miles traveled.”

The Harvard report (summary) discusses the impact of transporting coal by rail, “70% of U.S. rail traffic [is]dedicated to shipping coal” and there are 246 deaths annually as a result of the rail transport of coal in the U.S. These numbers are prior to any additional coal transportation by rail form the Powder-River Basin.

China added the ability to produce approximately 51 gigawatts of electricity via coal in 2009. 2010 estimates show an additional 51 gigawatts of production potential via coal. Despite efforts to diversify in the renewable energy industry, China continues to build coal-fired power plants to meet electricity demand. Forecasts of continued growth indicate that building new coal-fired plants is not likely to slow in the near future. China now produces over 28% more gigawatts of electricity from coal than in 2007.

Article by Adrian King, appearing courtesy Justmeans.

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