Category Archives: Coal

Why coal can’t make America great again

Donald Trump gets fired up about coal in West Virginia

Among the ways Donald Trump vows to “make America great again” is reviving the US coal industry. That’s a stretch considering the plight coal faces today in the US. 

The combined value of the top four US coal companies fell from $33 billion in 2011 to $150 million in 2015. Coal’s declining role in the US power supply saw it go from 50% in 2006 to 42% in 2011, to 30% in 2016. US coal production dropped 19% in 2016 alone. In 2015, between 11 gigawatts (GW) and 14 GW of US coal capacity went off line.

The US coal industry took some comfort in the fact that 2017 first quarter data marked a sharp improvement over the disastrous year of 2016, with a 14.5% increase in weekly production and a 58% increase in exports.  But this is just a blip in the industry’s decline since 2006.  All the long-term US and global indicators suggest US coal will continue its decline.

Renewables eat into coal’s energy market share

A solar ev charging station in San Francisco

Forty-nine percent of the US coal market slump is attributable to natural gas and 18% to the growth of the renewables market.  Moreover, the renewables market now represents the largest share of new US electrical capacity installations, with 68% of new power capacity added in 2015 attributable to renewable energy sources.  This latter trend can only increase, with renewables having reached a point where they are among the least expensive sources of supply.

Another 26% coal’s decline is related to lower than expected electricity demand and another 3- 5% to environmental regulations.  Yet in Trump’s view, regulations have been a key killer of the coal industry. Trump has got it all wrong.

As if that’s not bad enough, the least expensive, least costly and easiest to mine US coal sources have been fully exploited, making a return to the good old cheap coal days unlikely.

For many US utilities, investments in coal-fired plants no longer make economic sense.  The same is true for railroad companies hauling coal.  The US railroad firm CSX announced it will no longer be buying new locomotives to haul coal.

Opening public lands to coal

Nevertheless, Trump thinks he has come up with the rabbit out of the hat solution for the coal industry.  Specifically, he wants to make federal lands available to the fossil fuel sector.  This is a major policy thrust since 28% of the land mass in the US, 643 million acres, is federally owned and 40% of coal mined in the US is extracted from federal lands. 

Within these public lands is the Powder River Basin, in southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming, one of the most productive coal mining regions in the US.

Conscious of environmental implications, the Obama administration had imposed a moratorium on new coal leases on public lands and adopted a ruling to eventually raise the royalties for existing coal mines on these lands.  In the interim, a three-year study on the industry’s environmental impacts was initiated.

But given the decline in domestic demand for coal, the Obama administration ban on coal on federal lands seemed, for some, to be a restriction on coal exports.

US coal industry depends on exports

With respect to foreign markets, the US coal industry is dependent on exports to China and India.  This spells more bad news for the US coal industry, considering China’s war on coal, solar coming in cheaper than coal in India and India’s targets for renewables.  To make matters worse, there is a lot of competition from other global suppliers of coal to Asian markets.

China’s war on coal

China's emissions drop, global cleantech boom are grounds for optimism on climate change
Chinese solar company Suntech at the Bird’s Nest stadium

In effect, half of the US coal industry’s revenue decline in the last 5 years is associated with the reduction of US coal exports to China.

China, the world’s largest energy consumer, represents half of the world’s coal demand and nearly half of global coal production.  With nearly 100% of its new electrical generation capacity associated with renewables, China saw its coal consumption slump for a third year in a row in 2016 with a 7.9% decline in 2016, a 3.7% decline in 2015 and 2.9% in 2014. This slump will continue given China’s commitment to invest a whopping $361 billion in renewables between 2016 and 2020.

The order of magnitude of China’s war on coal entails a 10% decline in the percentage of the nation’s electricity sourced from coal in just 4 years, from accounting for 80% of 2011 total electricity consumed to 70% in 2015.  By 2025, coal is expected to represent just 55% of China’s electricity mix.

Concurrently, China is cancelling coal power plants, both planned and already under construction.  In January 2017, China announced it had suspended plants totalling 120 Gigawatts of production.  This is part of a continuing trend.  China announced the suspension of 30 coal plants in 2016, representing 17 GW.

China is also cutting its domestic supply of coal with a commitment to close 1000 coal mines in 2016 and not open any new ones in the subsequent three years.

Beijing is equally impressive in its war on coal, having planned to cut 30% of its coal consumption in 2017 and having already pledged to completely ban all coal use by 2020.  The city had previously announced it would close its four major coal-fired plants in 2016.

US coal exports to India wane

As for India, a combination of cost declines for renewables and new government policies is shifting the electrical power landscape of the world’s other large coal consumer.

At an auction in May 2017, the state-run Solar Energy Corporation of India obtained a record low tariff of 2.44 Rupees (Rs) per kilowatt-hour (kWh) for Rajasthan’s Bhadla solar park, a 10,000-hectare facility on the edge of the Thar desert. This places solar energy at a considerably lower price than coal-fired plants.  India’s largest power company, NTCP, sells electricity from its coal facilities at Rs3.20 per kWh.

At the policy level, India has targets for 100 GW of solar and 75 GW of wind installed capacities by 2022.  But these goals may be too modest.  In June 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that its 40% renewables target for 2030 may be surpassed by 2027.  This could mean no new coal plants being built in India until after 2022.

Recent data indicates that India is on track to meet its policy objectives.  Between March 2014 and March 2017, India increased its solar capacity from 2.6 GW to 10 GW.

The impact on the country’s coal sector is already being felt.  In June 2017, Coal India, the world’s largest coal producer – representing 82% of the country’s coal – announced the closure of 37 mines.  Around the same period, the Indian states of Gujarat, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh cancelled thermal energy plants.

This is quite the energy transition as 60% of the country’s current electrical production stems from coal sources.

In parallel, the India experienced a 21.7% decline in coal imports in January 2017.

The decline of the global coal sector

International Coal Summit's pipe dream of carbon capture and storageCollectively, the impact of the decline of coal consumption in the US and China is a projected stagnation of global coal demand for the next 5 years

Globally, a record breaking 64 GW of coal plant retirements occurred over 2015 and 2016.  Global coal production fell the equivalent of 231 million tons of oil in 2016 alone.

US coal industry job numbers confirm domestic and export market trends.  The industry went from 800,000 jobs in in the 1920s, to 130,000 in 2011 to a little over 70,000 today.

Yet, Richard Reavey, chief lobbyist for Cloud Peak Energy, a US coal enterprise with major investments in the Powder River Basin, described the Obama ban on new coal mining on public lands as a policy to restrict access to satisfying market demand.

Fittingly, the Trump administration repealed the moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands and froze the raising of royalties on these lands.

The 2017 spike in industry numbers may give the Trump administration the illusion (among many) that he is succeeding in reviving the US coal industry.  But the long-term trends will continue to paint a different picture.


90% of world’s new electricity coming from renewables: Welcome to the end of the fossil fuel era

Solar installation class (Haggerston Community College/Flickr CC licence)
Solar installation class (Haggerston Community College/Flickr CC licence)

According to the International Energy Agency, a staggering 90% of all new electrical capacity brought online around the world in 2015 came in the form of renewable energy. That same year, China invested a record $110 Billion in clean tech – virtually 100% of its electrical capital – and in 2016, it’s set to close 1,000 coal mines. While Canada is shedding fossil fuel jobs like they’re going out of style, the world’s current economic powerhouses – China, the US, Germany, Brazil, Korea – are generating millions of new green jobs.

In other words, the bust we’re witnessing in Fort McMurray and North Dakota is no mere blip – no typical, “cyclical” downturn. Common Sense Canadian contributor and retired federal government energy innovation expert Will Dubitsky, who has been tracking and publishing these figures here for several years now and whom I draw on extensively for this article, put it to me in the following terms:

[quote]We don’t expect a return in the blacksmith business. At some point, it was simply replaced by more modern tools and trades.[/quote]

Statistics don’t have feelings

Bank of England's Carney- Most fossil fuel reserves shouldn't be burned
Mark Carney in Davos, Switzerland, 2010 (Photo: Wikipedia)

Even if you dismiss the extraordinary economic opportunities emerging in the clean tech sector, the mounting costs and existential threat of climate change are proving impossible for global leaders to ignore, as Paris demonstrated. People at the very core of the so-called “establishment” – from Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England to BP Chief Economist Spencer Dale, now acknowledge that most fossil fuel reserves will have to be left in the ground.

Based on all the available research today – and we have reams of it in our Renewable Energy section – the fossil fuel era is rapidly drawing to a close.

And here’s the cold, hard truth: Statistics and facts don’t care whether you’re a bleeding-heart tree-hugger or dyed-in-the-wool Alberta conservative. They don’t care how badly you need your old job or whether you feel persecuted or unappreciated by the rest of the country. They don’t care about your stock portfolio, your values, your moral compass, your grandchildren, vanishing caribou herds, wild salmon or spotted owls. And we, as a nation – as citizens, employers, employees, parents, youth, pensioners, taxpayers and voters must decide whether we wish to embrace these new realities or bury our heads in the sand – a particular bitumen-laden variety.

Leaping in circles

Canada’s political parties, provincial and federal, are all grappling with these realities in their own, interesting ways – a spectacle now on display from coast to coast to coast.

The NDP’s gong show of a recent federal convention is a prime example. Following his election failure last Fall, Thomas Mulcair absorbed two final nails in his coffin – both over the same issue but from completely opposite ends of the party’s political spectrum. He was too centrist for the party’s left wing, while his openness to the Lewis/Klein faction’s anti-pipeline “Leap Manifesto” angered the Rachel Notley-led provincial party in Alberta, (not to mention working the usual pundits into a tizzy over its sheer audacity, pronouncing the NDP dead upon the manifesto’s arrival). Why on earth Mulcair let the convention happen on Notley’s turf is anyone’s guess.

But Notley fully merits recrimination for her recent ultimatum on pipelines. She won’t get them through BC – even Kinder Morgan is a non-starter, which, apparently no one but we British Columbians, in the “West beyond the West”, realize. The particular blend of First Nations, court challenges, municipal government opposition, powerful coastal activists, widespread public condemnation and complete lack of economic or “jobs” case for the project means that it simply will not happen. I’m taking bets for anyone foolish enough to lay one against me. I’m already collecting on my Enbridge wagers from 5 years ago. Notley will learn soon enough.

BC or Quebec – take your pick

New Quebec government choosing fossil fuels over green jobs
Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard (Photo: facebook)

As for Energy East, well, Notley’s got another fiercely “distinct” Canadian province to contend with in the form of Quebec. Good luck with that one.

But the bigger issue is the whole “getting bitumen to tidewater” argument – i.e. that Canadian bitumen producers are getting shafted on the price for their product because of a lack of pipeline capacity and shipping opportunities. While it sounds credible enough on the surface to people who don’t know better, and it may have been true a few years ago, it no longer holds water today. Moreover, the global growth in demand for fossil fuels is flattening out, while, according to this blog from the World Economic Forum:

[quote]Petroleum consumption in the US was lower in 2014 than it was in 1997, despite the fact that the economy grew almost 50% over this period.[/quote]

In this energy climate, there simply is no argument for expanding export capacity.

Trudeau singing same tune

You can lump the Trudeau government in with Notley on this one, as it continues to advocate for many of the same projects and backs BC’s LNG pipe dream. One of these days, Justin may learn that he can’t have his cake and eat it too – but we appear to be a long way away from that today. In the meantime, he would do a lot to assuage British Columbians, First Nations and the environmental community if his cabinet declined to issue the permit now before it for the controversial Lelu Island/Petronas-led LNG project near Prince Rupert.

BC NDP flip-flops on LNG

LNG, fracking and BC's Energy future- Multi-media discussion in Victoria
BC’s LNG ship may never come in

This project and many others are the brainchild of BC Liberal Premier Christy Clark, who evidently has not received the memo on all the above realities (though we at the CSC have sent her many!). Up until recently, the John Horgan-led provincial NDP was fully on board with fracking and LNG, then it showed signs of changing its tune – a welcome development that would have gone a long way to helping it get elected in May 2017, for the first time in 16 years.

That was, alas, before Horgan flip-flopped back to the pro-LNG side, kow-towing to union pressure. Besides the obvious political, moral and scientific problems my colleague Rafe Mair addressed with this catastrophic error in judgement by Horgan, even the labour justification is plain wrong-headed. Horgan and BC Building Trades boss Tom Sigurdson clearly don’t understand that there are no jobs to be had for British Columbians in LNG. Even if a single project of 21 proposed gets built – which is looking increasingly unlikely given global crash in LNG prices and steady withdrawal of capital – the BC Liberal government has already promised many of these jobs away to China, Malaysia and India in the form of cheap, foreign temporary workers!

I laid out in these pages precisely how the NDP could successfully re-brand itself, incorporating all these insights. In short, the key to their success is the following slogan and all that goes with it: “New Democrats, New Economy.” But the chances of them getting with the program are diminishing by the day.

Notley’s dilemma

Rafe- Notley should change electoral system following Alberta NDP win
Alberta Premier Elect Rachel Notley rode to victory on a wave of progressive policies she’s now steadily abandoning (Alberta NDP facebook page)

The same logic and opportunities apply in Alberta, though it’s an even steeper hill to climb there. I appreciate the bind Ms. Notley finds herself in – which explains her backpedaling on a number of more progressive energy policies she ran on last year. Her pollsters must be telling her she’s got to make these grandiose declarations on pipelines and undercut the federal party if she has any hope of getting re-elected.

She faces an electorate that is understandably anxious about its future –  that only wants things to go back to the way they were in the good old days of $100-150 oil. It’s a scary thing not knowing how you’re going to feed your family. But things in Alberta aren’t going back to the way they were before, no matter how uncomfortable that reality is. And giving people false assurances will only make the problem worse. The only thing that can rescue the Alberta economy and bring jobs back is creating new ones – and there are real ways that can happen (more on that in a moment). Alas, for the moment. it’s easy to see how that may yet seem politically impossible to Ms. Notley.

Not all wine and roses

OK, to the skeptics who’ve gotten this far in the article, first of all, thank you for hearing me out. Second of all, you’re right about a lot of things.

You’re correct that we won’t suddenly replace fossil fuels with renewables across the board. There will necessarily be a transition period and quite possibly a place for fossil fuels in the mix for some time to come. We also won’t be able to sustain the level of growth, materialism and waste in our economy that relatively cheap, abundant fossil fuels have enabled over the past century. Some tough adjustments will need to be made there.

BC sitting on enough geothermal to power whole province, say new maps
Steam rising from the Nesjavellir Geothermal Power Station in Iceland (Photo: Gretar Ívarsson / Wikipedia)

Moreover, not all renewables are created equally – and they all have their problems. Most are not “baseload”, meaning they’re only available intermittently. The exceptions are geothermal (a huge untapped opportunity for places like BC), and large hydro dams, which aren’t clean or green for a whole host of reasons.

The solution to the intermittency issue is multi-fold. It requires building a grid with overlapping sources which fill in each other’s gaps at different times. In places like BC, Manitoba, Quebec, and a number of US states, those large dams we already have can underpin newer, non-baseload renewables. Geothermal can do the same and has for decades in San Francisco. Iceland gets more than half its electricity from it.

There are other problems with renewables though. Aggressive incentives for renewables like feed-in-tariffs have led to soaring electrical costs and energy poverty in places like Germany and Ontario, while in BC, our disastrous private “run-of-river” sham has ravaged watersheds and put BC Hydro on the brink of bankruptcy. The renewable energy sector is no more immune to greed, corruption, foolishness, and government mismanagement than the fossil fuel sector is. Anything we choose to build must be done carefully and with the public interest in mind.

Conservation is the key

The most important piece of the puzzle is conservation – the only form of energy that carries zero environmental impact or cost. The good news is we’re already doing a great job at this. Americans are using roughly the same amount of electricity in their homes today as they did at the beginning of the millennium – despite population increases, more elaborate gadgetry, and the arrival of electric cars. It’s the same story here in BC.

Things are looking up

Now for the really good news! Once we get past the denial and difficulty of letting go of everything we’ve come to take for granted, there are huge upsides to the end of the fossil fuel era. As columnist Will Dubistsky put it in these pages recently, the above developments have resulted in “an amazing decline in energy-related CO2 in both China and the US and global emissions remaining flat since 2013! What’s more, for the first time in history emissions have declined during a period of economic growth.” 

Randall Benson is a former oil sands worker who runs a successful solar company and training program (Iron & Earth)
Randall Benson is a former oil sands worker who runs a successful solar company and training program (Iron & Earth)

The message we so often get from the media and our elected leaders, particularly in Canada, is, “Sure climate change is a problem and we have to act, but we’ll get to it in 20 years.” Well, the world is already getting to it. Reducing emissions is very much achievable. So is transitioning to renewable energy, and while Canada has remained on the sidelines of the green jobs revolution thus far, there are signs that’s beginning to change.

Suncor recently announced plans to build multiple wind projects in Alberta. Meanwhile, a group of oil sands workers calling themselves Iron & Earth is pushing for resources to retool their skills for clean tech. These welders, electricians, boilermakers, pipe-fitters, carpenters, etc. are well positioned to transfer their considerable abilities towards wind, solar and geothermal. They’re calling on Rachel Notley to expand Alberta’s solar training programs to include retraining of existing electricians for solar installations. And that’s no big leap.

So, we have two choices as Canadians: 1. Accept that the end of the fossil fuel era is nigh and get on with building a new economy that puts Canadians to work in sustainable, longterm jobs; 2. Remain in denial, chasing a vanishing sector, ensuring Canadians remain out of work…and then accept that the end of the fossil fuel era.

The statistics don’t care. It will happen either way.

Latest Harper Omnibus bill guts environmental laws for coal, LNG ports

Latest Harper Omnibus bill guts regulations for coal, LNG ports

Neptune coal terminal (Image: Dan Pierce/Wilderness Committee)
Neptune coal terminal (Image: Dan Pierce/Wilderness Committee)

By Andrew Gage and Anna Johnston – republished with permission from the West Coast Environmental Law Association.

On October 23, 2014, the federal government introduced Bill C-43A second Act to implement certain provisions of the budget tabled in Parliament on February 11, 2014 and other measures (also called the “Economic Action Plan 2014 Act, No. 2”). Buried in Division 16 of the 475 page omnibus bill are proposed changes to the Canada Marine Act that, if adopted, would pose a serious threat to legal protection from environmental threats and public oversight of activities that occur in ports.

The proposed amendments raise a number of concerns for British Columbians, especially as they relate to controversial shipping industries like coal and LNG – indeed one of the most troubling amendments could be viewed as a direct challenge to a lawsuit filed by Voters Taking Action on Climate Change against the environmental assessment of the controversial Fraser Surrey Coal Docks.  For detailed information, see our legal backgrounder Bill C-43: A threat to environmental safety and democracy, but two of the most concerning changes are:

  • Allowing the federal Cabinet to exempt port lands from key requirements of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act 2012 and Species At Risk Act that regulate “federal lands” by turning those lands over to port authorities.
  • Giving Cabinet extensive powers to write new laws for ports, and to delegate law-making powers for ports to any person, without many checks and balances.

Exempting “federal lands” from federal environmental laws

Some federal environmental statutes create special environmental requirements for activities taking place on “federal lands.”  Examples include:

  • Canadian Environmental Assessment 2012– the requirement to consider the environmental impacts of projects – even where they would not otherwise require an environmental assessment;
  • Species At Risk Act– The requirement to protect land-based endangered and threatened species and their habitat on federal lands.

Bill C-43 gives the federal government the ability to get around these legal protections by converting federal lands into port lands.  Specifically, Cabinet would gain the ability to sell its lands in a port to the port authority.  Once it does so, even though the port authority is supposed to act as an agent of the federal government, those lands will no longer be considered “federal lands.”

And, presto, as if by magic those nasty environmental protections disappear.

A controversial coal port proposed for Surrey, BC gives a tangible example of what this might mean.  As we write in the backgrounder:

[quote]…Fraser Surrey Docks LP’s proposed Direct Transfer Coal Facility in Surrey, BC was required to undergo a federal environmental assessment by the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority because the project occurs on federal lands under Port Authority supervision. The Port Authority’s approval of the facility has been challenged in court by a group of citizen and non-profit applicants represented by Ecojustice and Beverly Hobby (with funding from West Coast) for failing to follow the requirements of CEAA 2012. If the Bill C-43 changes to the Canada Marine Act come into effect and the federal government were to sell the property on which it is located to the Port Authority, it would be possible for controversial projects like this one to bypass reviews under CEAA 2012 altogether.[/quote]

Trust us, we’re law-makers

The second thing that Bill C-43 does is to turn over exceptionally wide law-making powers to Cabinet, including giving it the ability to turn broad powers over to port authorities, provinces or even industry.  While Cabinet often has the power to make regulations under a statute, these powers are exceptionally broad, and include powers to:

  • hand over regulatory, administrative or even judicial (court) control of industrial activities in ports to any person, including a province, port authority or even industry itself;
  • powers to incorporate industry or other documents in the regulations without necessarily making those documents publicly available;
  • create rules for the retention or destruction of documents.

The Bill provides few explicit constraints over how these powers could be used, and the government hasn’t given any real indication as to its plans, but:

Powers that can be delegated include responsibility for making laws and policies regarding specified industrial activities in ports, administering activities under those instruments, and hearing disputes that occur regarding port activities. For example, Cabinet could in principle allow an industry association to write the rules regarding the assessment and permitting processes for LNG facilities and coal storage, and the shipping of both. It could then incorporate those rules into federal law without public notice or opportunity to comment.

The Bill even purports to allow Cabinet to take oversight of the new rules away from the courts by creating a tribunal to hear any disputes regarding those activities in ports, including challenges by the public. It could appoint industry representatives as the tribunal’s members and authorize port authorities to write the rules governing port activities and for hearing disputes (including who would have standing to bring a challenge).

Canadians understand the value of checks and balances and transparency in laws.  These amendments do away with both.

Secret amendments

What are these amendments doing in a budget bill?  This is the latest of a series of amendments to environmental laws that have been hidden in voluminous budget bills and debated by the House Finance Committee (instead of environmental committee).  This is not the way democracy is supposed to work, and now is the time to say no.

Andrew Gage and Anna Johnston are staff counsel at the West Coast Environmental Law Association. They are calling on concerned citizens to write to Finance Minister Joe Oliver about this proposed omnibus budget bill.


Port Metro endorses “fuel of last century” with coal terminal OK

Port Metro Vancouver is taking a big step backwards with coal terminal approval, say critics
Port Metro Vancouver is taking a big step backwards with Fraser River coal terminal approval, critics say

By Chris Rose – republished with permission from

Canada’s largest port has given the green light to a proposed controversial facility on the Fraser River that would unload U.S. coal destined for energy-hungry Asia.

Despite facing significant environmental and health concerns, Port Metro Vancouver said in its decision, released last Thursday, that the proposed coal transfer facility at Fraser Surrey Docks poses no unacceptable risks.

The $15 million project could handle at least four million metric tonnes of coal per year delivered by the Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railway Company. It will then be loaded onto barges at the Surrey facility and transferred to ocean-going carriers at Texada Island, prior to export.

Port Metro endorses fuel of last century with coal terminal OK
Photo: Fraser-Surrey Docks

Referring to environmental studies and mitigation efforts, Jim Crandles, Port Metro Vancouver’s director of planning and development, was quoted as saying “we are confident that the project does not pose a risk to the environment or human health and that the public is protected.”

Disappointed opponents, however, said there are many unanswered questions about local and regional impacts of building and operating the facility.

Those include coal dust and diesel exhaust exposure in local populations, fire risks associated with storing coal in open barges in local communities, noise impacts, emergency vehicle access constraints, and impacts associated with transporting coal in open barges on the ocean.

If it goes ahead, this decision means more U.S. coal trains travelling through our communities,” Kevin Washbrook, director of Voters Taking Action on Climate Change, told DeSmogBlog in an email Friday.

[quote]It means more coal being shipped to Asia to be burned, and more emissions into our atmosphere, at a time when we absolutely, positively need to cut back on those emissions. All to run uncovered, football field-length barges of U.S. thermal coal down the world’s richest salmon river.[/quote]

Washbrook, who has compared Big Coal to Big Tobacco and its efforts to obscure the risks of smoking in order to keep making huge profits, added the decision will be challenged through the local air quality permitting process, during the coming municipal elections in November and in court.

Simon Fraser University health sciences professor Tim Takaro said the project runs contrary to public health.

Coal is a fuel of the last century,” Takaro says.

[quote]We have to stop using it sometime and here’s a great opportunity to apply society’s ‘brakes,’ join communities in the U.S. that have refused to ship this same product, and think of the future generations who will inherit the messes we make.[/quote]

The Port Metro Vancouver decision comes shortly after the Oregon Department of State Lands rejected a proposal to export 8.8 million tons per year of coal to Asia from the Port of Morrow in Boardman.

But as DeSmogBlog noted on Thursday, the Long Beach City Council had just approved a proposal to export coal and petroleum coke, which is a tar sands by-product, to the global market, mainly Asia, to the tune of 1.7 million tons per year.

Last November, the Winnipeg Free Press reported a group of concerned citizens, environmentalists and scientists asked Port Metro Vancouver officials to delay any expansion of coal-exporting facilities, saying public input was required and climate change problems would be increased as a result of the projects.

Among those who signed a letter opposing any coal port expansion were David Suzuki, Naomi Klein and James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the first scientist to warn the U.S. government of the potential dangers of unmitigated climate change and who described coal-fired power plants as “factories of death.”


Rain blamed for yet another CN derailment - this time near Vancouver

Rain blamed for latest CN derailment – this time near Vancouver

Rain blamed for yet another CN derailment - this time near Vancouver
Yet another derailment for CN, this time involving coal, near Vancouver.

BURNABY, B.C. – A CN Rail spokeswoman has confirmed heavy rainfall led to a train derailment in the Vancouver area Saturday.

Emily Hamer says the increased amount of rain caused a beaver dam to wash out, spilling large amounts of water onto the tracks and causing a train in Burnaby to jump the tracks.

She says seven cars went off the rails — three of them were lying on their sides while four remained upright.

Coal was spilt into a nearby creek that feeds into Burnaby Lake, but Hamer could not say how much.

The train is owned by CP Rail, but the tracks and the crew are from CN Rail.

Hamer says CN Rail is taking the lead in the cleanup and that the tracks should be operational by Sunday afternoon.

Read: Mechanical failure spurred CN oil train derailment in New Brunswick

Canadians get lots of coal, oil and gas in holiday trash dump

Canadians get lots of coal, oil and gas in holiday trash dump


Canadians get lots of coal, oil and gas in holiday trash dump

The Friday night trash dump is a well-known trick of governments looking to dispense with bad news as quietly as possible. Controversial announcements are made in the last hour of the last day of the week to avoid public scrutiny.

This year, the holiday season has served the same role, only on a much grander scale, with multiple environmental hearings and major resource project announcements occurring at the time of year citizens and media are least able to engage with them. The list is truly breathtaking – here are just a few of the presents we got in our stocking this December:

  • Port Metro Vancouver conducted its public comment period over the highly controversial, proposed Surrey Fraser Docks coal handling facility. The Port received some 3,500 submissions – all but 6 of them speaking against the plan – yet, it shows no real signs of listening to the public and experts, choosing instead to downplay the overwhelmingly negative response in its post-review comments last week.

The litany of such announcements and hearings makes it clear this is more than just a coincidence. It demonstrates a blatant disregard for the public interest in these hugely formative decisions for the future of our health, environment and economy.

If this bunch of Scrooges really believed in the value of their projects, they wouldn’t feel the need to hide them between office parties, holiday baking and eggnog with the family.

International Coal Summit's pipe dream of carbon capture and storage

International Coal Summit’s pipe dream of carbon capture & storage


International Coal Summit's pipe dream of carbon capture and storage

A new study released today at the UN climate conference underway in Warsaw, Poland finds that new coal plants cannot be built if we are to keep global warming below the 2° Celsius threshold.

That is, unless the coal industry can deploy commercial-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS).

The report, titled: New unabated coal is not compatible with keeping global warming below 2°C, finds that of all the fossil fuels, coal is the easiest to substitute with renewable technologies and that:

[quote]The current global trend of coal use is consistent with an emissions pathway above the IEA’s [International Energy Agency] 6°C scenario. That risks an outcome that can only be described as catastrophic, beyond anything that mankind has experienced during its entire existence on earth.[/quote]

In other words, CCS better work and work fast.

Carbon capture on agenda at coal conference

Down the road from the UN conference, the Polish government (of all people) is hosting the “International Coal and Climate Summit” which heavily features CCS experts and discussion panels.

There will likely be little talk at the coal summit of just how ridiculous the idea of commercially deployed CCS is becoming.

Carbon capture and storage  technology has been a “future” solution for many years now, with governments abandoning experimental projects due to cost overruns and lack of progress. Governments like the United States, at the behest of the coal lobby, have pumped billions into CCS technology experiments, yet it continues to fail as a commercially viable option.

A recent study by the Global CCS Institute found that the number of large scale CCS projects has dropped to 65 from 75 over the last year. If this was the grand solution to the urgent issue of climate change, you would think we would be seeing more projects coming on line, not fewer.

Even if we saw a breakthrough in CCS, huge issues remain. The first hurdle is finance.

As renewable energy technology prices continue to drop and reach parity with fossil fuels like coal (something we are already seeing), CCS begins to make less and less sense from a financial point of view. Coal prices will inevitably go up to cover the costs of CCS development making it uncompetitive with renewable energy.

A second big hurdle is regulation of carbon storage. CCS can only work as a solution to climate change if the captured carbon stays safely in the ground forever. So who is in charge of ensuring that all that carbon stays underground? Coal companies? If a coal company takes on that responsibility, what happens when that company goes under? Who then is responsible? Taxpayers?

What if there’s an earthquake near a carbon storage facility? A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science concludes that even a small earthquake event in the US has the potential to release stored carbon back into the atmosphere, making “large-scale CCS a risky, and likely unsuccessful, strategy for significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

In the United States, the coal industry argues that the government (read: taxpayers) should take on the responsibility and the liability for stored carbon – a convenient stance for the coal industry.

Finally there are the logistics of capturing carbon and moving it either by pipeline, train or truck to a designated storage facility.

2008 article on CCS by author Jeff Goodell describes the challenge of transporting carbon best:

[quote]Vaclav Smil, an energy expert at the University of Manitoba, Canada, argued recently in Nature that ‘carbon sequestration is irresponsibly portrayed as an imminently useful option for solving the challenge [of global warming].’ Smil pointed out that to sequester just 25% of the CO2 emitted by stationary sources (mostly coal plants), we would have to create a system whose annual volume of fluid would be slightly more than twice that of the world’s crude-oil industry.[/quote]

Smil’s own words, to sequester just a fifth of current CO2 emissions:

[quote]… we would have to create an entirely new worldwide absorption-gathering-compression-transportation- storage industry whose annual throughput would have to be about 70 percent larger than the annual volume now handled by the global crude oil industry whose immense infrastructure of wells, pipelines, compressor stations and storages took generations to build.[/quote]

Any practical thinker should by now be asking themselves: Wouldn’t it just be easier to put up a bunch of solar panels and wind turbines? 

Unfortunately, the mythical distraction of ‘clean coal’ and still unrealized CCS commercialization remain a shiny penny for the technocentric crowd.

The End of Coal?

The End of Coal?

The End of Coal?
China is coal’s last great hope – but even that may be changing

by Jonathan Fahey

NEW YORK – The future of coal is getting darker.

Economic forces, pollution concerns and competition from cleaner fuels are slowly nudging nations around the globe away from the fuel that made the industrial revolution possible.

The U.S. will burn 943 million tons of coal this year, only about as much as it did in 1993. Now it’s on the verge of adopting pollution rules that may all but prohibit the construction of new coal plants. And China, which burns 4 billion tons of coal a year — as much as the rest of the world combined — is taking steps to slow the staggering growth of its coal consumption and may even be approaching a peak.

China: The beginning and end of coal

Michael Parker, a commodities analyst at Bernstein Research, calls the shift in China “the beginning of the end of coal.” While global coal use is almost certain to grow over the next few years — and remain an important fuel for decades after that — coal may soon begin a long slow decline.

Coal has been the dominant fuel for power generation for a century because it is cheap, plentiful, and easy to ship and store. But it emits a host of pollution-forming gases and soot particles, and double the greenhouse gas emissions of its closest fossil fuel competitor, natural gas. Now utilities are relying more on natural gas to generate electricity as discoveries around the world boost the fuel’s supplies. The big, expanding economies of China and India are building more nuclear and hydro-electric power plants. Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, while still a small fraction of the global energy mix, are growing fast as they get cheaper. And a greater emphasis on efficiency is tempering global growth in electricity demand.

U.S. coal consumption lowest in 20 years

In the U.S., coal production is on track to fall to a 20-year low of just over 1 billion tons this year. In the first half of the year, 151 U.S. coal mines that employed 2,658 workers were idled, according to a study conducted by SNL Energy, an energy-market data and analysis firm. Last month the U.S. government held an auction for mining rights to a prime, coal-rich tract of land in Wyoming and didn’t attract a single bid.

Later this week, the Obama Administration is expected to announce a rule that would cap the amount of carbon dioxide that new power plants are allowed to emit. The new limits appear to be impossible for coal plants to meet without carbon-trapping technology that analysts say would be prohibitively expensive — if it were even available commercially yet.

The coal industry and energy forecasters have long known that clean-air rules and competition from natural gas would make the U.S. a tough market for coal. But they predicted that rising coal demand in Asia, and particularly China, would more than make up for the slowing U.S. demand and power strong growth for coal companies for years to come.

China’s coal demand to peak by 2020

Now even that last great hope for coal may be fading. In a report published earlier this month Citibank analysts suggested that “one of the most unassailable assumptions in global energy markets” — that coal demand would continue to rise in China for the foreseeable future — may be flawed. Bernstein Research reached similar conclusions in a report published in June.

Both reports predict coal demand in China will peak before 2020. Bernstein researchers predict Chinese demand will top out at 4.3 billion tons in 2015 and begin to fall by 2016. China is far and away the most important country for the world’s coal industry: Between 2007 and 2012, growth in Chinese coal consumption accounted for all of total global growth, according to Bernstein. Without China, world demand fell 1.2 per cent over the period.


But Chinese economic growth, which averaged 10 per cent for the 10 years ended in 2012, is expected to slow to 5 per cent to 8 per cent over the next decade. At the same time, the Chinese economy is expected to require less energy to grow, and other forms of generation such as nuclear, hydro-electric and renewables are elbowing into coal’s turf. And government officials are responding to public outcry over China’s notoriously unhealthy air. Last week Chinese authorities announced they would ban new coal fired power plants from three important industrial regions around Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

In the view of Bernstein analysts:

[quote]All industrialized societies eventually decide that, while cheap sneakers are nice, the environmental damage caused by uncontrolled industrial activity is no longer tolerable.[/quote]

If these new predictions come to pass, it would spell more lean times for coal miners in major coal exporting countries such as the U.S., Australia and Indonesia. At the same time, the shift would give a major boost to efforts to curb emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, and pollutants such as mercury and sulfur dioxide.

Cleaner coal too costly?

Outfitting coal plants with scrubbers and other pollution-trapping equipment makes coal-fired power much more expensive and makes other technologies, including renewable power, comparably less expensive.

“The economics, finally, are at our backs,” says Bruce Nilles, who directs the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

Coal industry predicts better days ahead

To the coal industry, this is simply a lull that plagues commodity markets every few years. A global oversupply of coal that developed last year pushed prices dramatically lower and forced companies to cut back. That glut is now being burned through, the industry says.

Even if economic growth in places like China and India isn’t quite what it was over the last decade, it will still remain strong enough to keep global demand rising for many years, some analysts and industry executives say.

Says Vic Svec, investor relations chief at Peabody Energy:

[quote]Coal has several decades of long-term growth ahead of it.


Peabody, which is the world’s largest investor-owned coal producer, predicts that between 2012 and 2017 the world will need an additional 1.3 billion tons of coal per year — one-third more than the entire U.S. consumes in a year.

“Maybe today (Asia) doesn’t need our coal because there is over-supply and lower prices, but that will change,” says Michael Dudas, a coal company analyst at Stern Agee.

But a growing number of experts are beginning to reconsider the long-held assumption that the developing world will consume ever more coal just the way the developed world once did.

“The era of wanton Chinese coal demand growth is approaching an end,” wrote Citibank analyst Anthony Yuen.

Jonathan Fahey can be reached at .


Appalachia-North? 18 new coal mine proposals for Comox Valley


The Comox Valley citizens’ group that recently sent a proposed coal mine application back to the drawing board has discovered a staggering 18 new coal mine applications throughout the same central Vancouver Island region.

The discovery comes on the heels of a broad-based public campaign, driven by Coalwatch Comox Valley, which successfully blocked the proposed Raven Coal Mine through its environmental assessment. The organization managed to drive thousands of people to public hearings opposing the project, which threatened the local shellfish economy, one of the region’s biggest employers.

This new batch of applications was filed with the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Natural Gas by Feisa Resources Canada and Golden River Resources Inc. during a two-week period from May 10 to May 24, 2013.

CoalWatch issued the following statement in reaction to the findings:

Golden River Resource Inc. has filed 8 coal license applications, with 4 applications in the Anderson Lake area, just north of Comox Lake, and 4 applications in the Oyster River area. The total area covered in the Golden River applications is 9,075 hectares.

Feisa Resources Canada has filed 10 coal license applications in the Fanny Bay-Union Bay-Royston area. The total area covered in the Feisa Resources applications is 13,312.5 hectares. These Feisa applications appear to be for exactly the same coal that is targeted for the proposed Raven Underground Coal Project.

“We were stunned to see this amount of new coal license applications covering such a large area of the Comox Valley”, said CoalWatch president John Snyder. “The applications in the Anderson Lake area are a huge concern due to their proximity to the Puntledge and Tsolum River watersheds”.

“ It’s shocking there’s been no public notice on these coal license applications, other than being listed on an obscure government website. These applications are the first stage in any future coal mine exploration or development, and there needs to be more transparency and public notice when these are filed,” added Snyder.

On two recent coal license applications in the Anderson Lake and Oyster River areas, the Comox Valley Regional District (CVRD) passed a motion requesting no license be issued due to concern that coal mine exploration, and further coal mine development, impacts existing industries.

“CoalWatch intends to monitor the review process on these new coal license applications, and if the CVRD is asked to comment on these applications, we’ll notify the public so they can voice their concerns”, said Snyder. “These latest applications are the first step on the slippery slope of transforming the Comox Valley into what many fear would be a mini-Appalachian type coal mine region”.