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What to do with a billion tons of crappy coal

The coal industry is maneuvering to sharply ramp up its U.S. exports to Asia out of the West Coast, with the first of several potential port expansions along the Columbia River now before officials in Washington state.You may remember Ambre Energy, the Australia-based coal company that wants to build a multi-million dollar coal processing plant in southeastern Montana. They want to take poor quality coal from the Powder River Basin and strip out the moisture to make it easier to sell. They are currently in talks to buy the Decker Mine which straddles the Montana-Wyoming border.

Problem is, there really isn’t much of a market in the U.S. for crappy coal, even if you spruce it up a bit. What to do? How about selling it to China? They don’t have all these pesky environmental regulations so, they can burn poor-quality coal and export the pollution. Who sits downwind of China’s pollution? Montana. Second problem; How to get crappy coal to China cheaply. Right now, most of the Asia-export coal goes through Vancouver, B.C. That’s a long ways to ship coal. How about we just dredge the Columbia River for coal barges and put in several new port facilities? Sound good?

Why the Decker Mine? Well, suppose there was a railroad from Decker up to Miles City, Montana that would allow easy access for coal trains to the east/west routes through Montana? Doesn’t exist you say? Enter the Otter Creek coal tracts and the Tongue River Railroad. Far-sighted Montana decided to sell a billion tons of high-sodium coal to Arch Coal at a bargain basement price so that there would be money left over to subsidize the building of a rail line from Decker to Miles city along the Tongue River. Not only is the rail line a bonanza for getting Wyoming coal to northern markets, it allows access to a new source of a billion tons of coal from Otter Creek. Problem is, the Otter Creek coal is such poor quality that there is no U.S. market. What to do? I know, we could sell it to China, if there was only a cheap way to get it there…

Industry giants Peabody Energy and Arch Coal have said repeatedly in recent months that Asian exports are a major component of their future business strategy.” Talk about compounding one disaster with another. Sell the coal for fifteen cents per ton, strip mine thousands of acres of Montana, decimate the Tongue River Valley with a railroad, spend millions cleaning up the mess… Just so we can dredge the Columbia River for coal barges to take our crappy product to China where it will be burned in inefficient power plants, increasing global warming and sickening everybody downwind (and that’s everybody).

Thanks again to the Montana State Land Board. Okay, so maybe it’s not as bad as it seems. I tend to see conspiracies everywhere, but I’m just sayin’…


Update 11/19/2010: From ReutersIs Sending Wyoming Coal to China Smart Economics?

“What’s China going to do with [U.S.] coal?” said K.C. Golden, policy director of Climate Solutions, a Seattle-based nonprofit group. “They’re going to burn it to make the steel that we don’t make anymore. They’re going to manufacture the things we don’t make anymore.”

“Is this a good jobs strategy to become the resource colony for the development of the Asian economy?” he asked.


One Response

  1. The singer/songwriter Martha Scanlan has a new set of songs out that are inspired by the issues and land and people of the Tongue River. Very much worth a listen at http://www.TongueRiverStories.com

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