Coal Exports Are Bigger Threat Than Tar Sands Pipeline

by Eric Place, in a cross post from Sightline Daily

The planned Keystone XL oil pipeline has earned major national attention for the damage it would do to the climate. At the same time, another climate drama is playing out with much less attention as coal companies make plans to export huge quantities to Asia by way of Pacific Northwest ports. It’s pretty clear that both projects are environmental horror stories, but I’ve been wondering: which one is worse?

So, from the “King Kong versus Godzilla” files, here’s my analysis of their carbon impacts. It turns out, coal exports are actually the bigger problem—and that’s really saying something.

The result surprised me: coal exports look to be an even bigger climate disaster than the pipeline. There are, in fact, quite a bit more direct emissions from burning the coal than from the oil. That’s true even when one counts the energy-intensive tar sands extraction and processing—and, of course, there are plenty of upstream emissions associated with coal mining that I’ve left out of the equation here. (In order to make a roughly direct comparison, I also omitted emissions associated with both products’ mining, refining, transportation, and so forth.) Clearly we can ill afford either one of these projects, but until we have a clear energy policy that respects climate science we’ll be wrestling with these kind of killer projects one at a time.

Now, for all the energy and math geeks out there, here’s the methodology I used to generate these numbers:

To calculate the carbon-dioxide emissions from coal exports, I assumed that 110 million tons of Powder River Basin coal are exported each year. That’s consistent with the 50 million tons planned for Cherry Point, Washington and 60 million tons planned for Longview, Washington. (It’s a figure that may actually understate the actual volume of exports because the Longview project sponsors have already been caught out using an 80 million ton figure, and there are nascent or rumored coal export plans that I didn’t account for in places like Grays Harbor, Washington; St. Helens, Oregon; and Coos Bay, Oregon.) I further assumed that Powder River Basin coal generates 8,500 BTUs per pound, and that one million BTUs would produce 212.7 pounds of CO2, consistent with US Department of Energy figures. Do all the algebra, and you arrive at 199 million tons of CO2 per year in “direct” emissions from the coal exports.

My coal emissions accounting leaves out a lot. I did not count the emissions associated with mining, processing, rail shipping, storing, maritime shipping, constructing new port or rail facilities, or any other related activities. I also didn’t count any non-CO2 or fugitive emissions. All I counted, in short, was the CO2 that will be directly released by burning the coal.

To calculate the CO2 emissions from the Keystone XL pipeline, I assumed that the pipeline moves 830,000 barrels of oil per day, which is what the US State Department says, and which works out to about 303 million barrels per year. I then assumed that each barrel of oil contains 0.43 metric tons of C02, which is what the US EPA assigns for an “average” barrel of oil. That all works out to just shy of 144 million short tons of CO2 per year for direct emissions from burning the oil.

The pipeline will not be moving “average” oil, of course, but rather tar sands oil, which is especially dirty and carbon intensive. Keep in mind, however, that “tailpipe” or direct emissions for the refined products that come from the oil—gasoline, diesel, kerosene, etc—are basically the same no matter what the original feedstock is. In other words, every gallon of gasoline you burn in your car produces pretty much the same amount of CO2 whether it originally came from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Coast, or the Canadian oil sands. The difference is that it takes a lot more energy, and therefore carbon, to extract and process tar sands oil.

So to account for the special nastiness of tar sands oil, I factored in the emissions that are associated with “producing” or extracting it. Using figures from David Strahan, Wikipedia, and other sources I assumed that extracting the oil and “upgrading” to make it suitable for refining results in somewhere around 18 to 26 percent more carbon emissions than the direct emissions from burning the fuel itself. (The exact amount depends on the local characteristics of the oil deposit as well as the technology deployed and other factors.) I took the mid-point of that range, 21.7 percent, and added 31 million tons of CO2 per year for the pipeline oil.

To maintain a roughly apples-to-apples comparison with my coal emissions calculation, I didn’t factor in emissions from shipping, refining, distributing, constructing the pipeline, or any other related activities. And again, I didn’t count any non-CO2 or fugitive emissions. All I counted, in short, was the CO2 that will be directly released by burning the oil plus the emissions required to extract and process the oil from the tar sands deposits.

— Eric de Place is a Senior researcher with Sightline. This post was originally published on the Sightline website.

13 Responses to Coal Exports Are Bigger Threat Than Tar Sands Pipeline

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    I don’t know of a single country with major coal reserves that has passed up the easy money from exporting them. The US and Australia are two of the worst offenders, both of whose leaders mouth the words about doing something about global warming.

    Digging out dangerous materials and selling them is a simple task, and attracts people with inferior intelligence and a complete lack of conscience. For specific reasons unknown to us, they have managed to subdue any serious opposition in government and the media.

    The people are going to have to step up, to stop heavy oil pipelines and coal trains to ports in the Pacific Northwest and Australia. Dr. Hansen has alreadys shown leadership here, since both of these commodities kill people in vast numbers. A lot more of us need to follow his example.

  2. Tim says:

    Exactly. And where is the money for the American tobacco industry and Afghani heroin or Columbian cocaine? Exports, of course.

  3. Joan Savage says:

    Thanks for a useful and candid starting point to look more deeply into what are potentially other “game over” decisions.

    Is there more reason to focus on exports, either from Canada or US, rather than total production and size of reserves?

    In 2009 the Wyoming Mining Commission (WMC) received a report that the Powder River Basin produced 450 million tons per year (page 7).

    That mass is more than triple the anticipated export from the West Coast given in the article above.

    Link to report:

    Let’s also note the comparative size of reserves.

    According to the Wyoming Mining Commission report, Powder River Basin could keep producing at the rate of 450 million tons of coal a year for 200 years.

    Comparing Powder River coal reserves to the Alberta Tar Sands oil is a challenge as there are multiple estimates of the size of the Canadian tar sands reserves.
    The US also has tar sands in Utah.

    Of course we know end use for petroleum often differs from end use for coal, another challenge in making comparisons.

  4. Joan Savage says:

    I withdraw my question on focus on export, as obviously exports can ramp up the rate of consumption over that of a domestic market. I missed Tim’s comment while referencing.

  5. M Tucker says:

    You might think with massive coal reserves the US might be the second biggest exporter of coal behind Australia. Actually, last year, Australia exported 4 times more coal than the US; Indonesia exported more than twice as much; Russia shipped about 1 and a half times as much. Yep, the US is number 4 in coal exports and all King Coal wants is its fair share, they just want what’s coming to them; coal sold for export is much more profitable than selling to the stinking domestic masses. The other major players in coal exports are S Africa, Colombia, and Canada. Yeah, I love it that Canada is now a major player in filthy unconventional bitumen oil exports and 7th in filthy coal exports.

    Who are the users? The coal hungry nations: Japan, China, S Korea, India, Taiwan, Germany (yes Germany), Turkey; in that order.

    (From IEA 2011 report)

  6. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Joe — I wonder how the numbers related to these coal terminals can be reconciled with EIA projections, which show coal exports remaining fairly flat for many years … and the fact that most exports are from eastern mines, not the west. Ken.

  7. Eric de Place says:

    I wouldn’t put too much stock in the EIA forecasts. My coal export figures are related to specific project proposals in the Northwest, not forecasted export levels. What I was trying to do was simply compare two different tangible projects — one for coal and one for oil — not make claims about the fossil fuel sectors in aggregate.

  8. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Thanks … it’s a fascinating comparison. Energy forecasts of all types are often questionable.

    What I wondered is whether EIA is just not considering increased production to meet the needs of those terminals you discuss, or whether they are thinking that experts will increase from the west as production from Appalachia declines.


  9. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Also, Eric — it would be interesting to do similar comparisons for greenhouse impacts of, say, a half-dozen of the biggest mountaintop removal mining permits proposed in West Virginia or Kentucky.

  10. Jessen says:

    Interesting stuff, and certainly coal exports need more attention. But there is the concern that the Keystone project is just the key to unlocking a new era of tar sands investment. To me, the extra emissions associated with the pipeline itself are a secondary (though real) concern. If this project pays off handsomely, especially once oil prices are sustained at higher levels via any substantial economic recovery, that may spur more tar sands infrastructure building. And of course, this is just another installment in the story of a world that is mostly focused on perpetuating the supply, allowing for further overall growth in consumption.

  11. David B. Benson says:

    Just say no to dirty coal.

  12. Frank Zaski says:

    Nice work Eric. A little more on EIA statistics, it looks like the East coast is by far the bigger coal export offender. Where is the outrage there? Here are the latest EIA 6 month 2011 export statistics.

    The top US coal export destination is Europe, 26 million tons, Netherlands the top country at 5.5 million tons.

    Asia is a distant second at 15 million tons, with South Korea (5.5) and Japan (4.0) ahead of China at 3.0 million tons.

    The US ships almost as much to the UK (2.9) and Italy (2.8) and as it does to China (3.0), but, a lot more to Brazil – 4.8 million tons.

    Does the East Coast needs leadership, organizing and protests?

  13. Great article. Nice to see the carbon export issue getting covered in all it’s guises.

    One point about Keystone XL is that it is a right of way. Yeah it might only have a single pipe to start with, but it is a path to much bigger things.

    Just look at the work being done to twin the Kinder Morgan into Vancouver. Big Tar is hoping they can expand the pipe along existing right of ways with little fuss. In fact the Keystone XL alternative routes that TransCanada is looking at use existing pipeline right of ways in big stretches.

    Why Americans are giving a foreign corporation a 1700 mile right of way across the entire nation is beyond me. Americans don’t even need the oil. In the last five years USA has cut oil imports by the equivalent of 4 Keystone XL sized pipes. USA is slashing oil imports because oil prices are rising so fast (up 90% in just five yeares). So USA doesn’t need more supply…it needs much less.

    Canada is already at 25% of imports which is a modern record for any nation. Why would USA rely on one nation for more than that from a national security perspective??

    For those with short memories, Canada used to be almost 25% of imports and the top importing nation…back in 1973. Then the Arab Oil Embargo hit and Canada panicked. They passed a law slashing exports to USA and were soon down to under 10%. USA would be stupid to rely on even a friendly nation like Canada for more than 25%.