Why Are the Greenest States Exporting Dirty Coal?

Coal shipments are set to boom in California and Washington.

(Photo: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

Todd Woody is TakePart's senior editor for environment and wildlife.

California and the Pacific Northwest’s commitment to fighting climate change apparently stops at the water’s edge. New data from research firm SNL shows that ports in two of the United States’ greenest states, California and Washington, exported nearly 25 million metric tons of coal between 2010 and 2014.

Those exports are set to grow exponentially in the years ahead. Monday night, for instance, commissioners for the Port of Long Beach are set to vote on contracts that commit the port to providing services for the export of 1.7 metric tons of coal annually for the next five years. In Washington state, environmentalists are battling plans to build new port terminals that would allow nearly 100 million metric tons of coal a year to be exported. That’s as much coal as the entire nation exported in 2011, according to the Washington Department of Ecology.

“It is unacceptable for an arm of our government—the Port is an entity of the city of Long Beach—to be in the business of pushing climate change–causing fuels on to other countries,” Morgan Wyenn, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Santa Monica, Calif., wrote in a blog post on Monday. “This is especially true given that every level of our government, from the White House to the state of California and even the city of Long Beach, are advancing increasingly stronger policies to phase off of coal and otherwise reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.”

For instance, the Los Angeles City Council voted last year to end imports of coal-fired electricity by 2025. The Port of Long Beach styles itself as the “Green Port” for its efforts to curb carbon emissions from its operations.

The coal shipped through West Coast ports comes from out-of-state mines and is destined for Asia. Compared with those of other coal-exporting regions of the U.S., West Coast shipments are relatively small. The port in Norfolk, Va., exported 171 million metric tons of coal between 2010 and 2014, according to SNL, while the port of New Orleans shipped 76 million tons.

Who’s buying all that black stuff? Europe, mainly. Europe imported 216 million tons of American coal between 2010 and 2014, more than twice what all of Asia bought from the U.S.

Most of the coal, though, is not being burned in power plants. About 60 percent of exported coal is used to make steel, according to the report. 

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