Thursday, July 17, 2014

A requiem for coal. Rejoice!

Two summers ago, I authored an op-ed on the issue of exporting coal from Montana and Wyoming via ports here in Oregon.  In arguing my case opposing the idea, I wrote:
 [Coal's] obsolescence is well under way. We need to start thinking about coal the way we think about wood as a source of fuel. Three centuries ago, wood was by far the dominant source of energy, but we don't harvest trees in order to export them as firewood, do we?
The coal exporters were motivated by the combination of falling domestic demand and China's endless demand for coal, especially the low-sulfur carbon.

The export terminal/port idea is far from dead here in Oregon.  But for the public opposition and politicians sympathetic to the opposition, the terminals would have started operating a long time ago.  However, the case for export terminals now has gotten weaker, and I am doubly excited because the logic for my opposition is also justified and validated.  Here is the Wall Street Journal:
China's once insatiable appetite for coal is cooling, raising questions about mining companies' big bets on new projects.
Beijing's figures on coal imports and domestic production this year indicate sharply weaker demand, which experts say stems from slowing growth in the world's No. 2 economy. Longer term, factors including new policies to curb air pollution by limiting coal use are likely to keep growth in coal consumption far below the double-digit increases of the past.

To be a commentator is one thing.  It is awesome when it turns out that I was right all along.  Unlike those pundits who earn gazillions of dollars for being wrong all the time ;)

As the WSJ notes, Australia and Indonesia--China's leading coal suppliers--have to quickly rethink their bets on projects.  If that is the case for those two countries far away from us, then what is the story with the American coal export to China?  No different:
The mud-colored air that blankets Chinese cities these days is bad for the people who live there. It may prove unhealthy for U.S. coal producers, too.
Intense opposition on the U.S. West Coast, over climate change, rail congestion and damage to Native American fisheries, already is blocking new export terminals designed to ship coal across the Pacific Ocean. Now, China -- which consumes almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined -- is accelerating a planned switch to cleaner fuels, including a possible cap on carbon emissions and limits on new coal-fired plants.
Even if such changes don’t occur as fast as environmentalists might hope, Chinese President Xi Jinping plans to scrap the economic strategy that spawned coal-eating steel plants in every province.
When demand falls, well, prices fall.  "[Even] if you could sell the quantity, you’re not going to get nearly the same price as in the past."  The love-affair fizzles:
China's boom gave the international coal market a new hope. Miners expanded thermal-coal capacity to 10% more than what is needed this year, according to Wood Mackenzie. A changing China now means coal will remain unloved.
I tell ya, if only the world would listen to me! ;)


Mike Hoth said...

At least your students listen to you, Sriram! Well, a few of us at least, college students are experts at pretending to listen. I can promise you had two students last term though!

Part of the problem with coal is the lack of understanding, which is to say that most people think it has been replaced with a cleaner fuel, especially in Oregon!

An old professor of mine starts his "Geography of Oregon" class with a test, and on that test he asks the question "what is the largest provider of electricity in Oregon?" He gets a few correct answers, which would be coal, and a lot of optimists answering dams, solar power, windmills and biofuel.

Of course, we're Americans, dammit, and when we don't understand something we can't be bothered to research anything, because that's not how we make money!

I think the world should listen to people like you more, but it is nice to have been right all along too.

Sriram Khé said...

Oh, hey Mike, I wonder if there was a mix-up when you wrote coal, in place of hydro--when it comes to Oregon's electricity, ours is dominantly hydro.

In any case, yes, it is not only American but human, I would think, to speculate and not sincerely engage in finding answers to questions. It is a rational approach that makes sense--after all, it is a path of least resistance.

And, of course, YES, the world and the students ought to listen to me more ... hehehe ;)