Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Gateway Pacific Terminal and Ocean Acidity

World Bank, Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must Be Avoided,
November 2012, at 11.

Surely I was not alone in being walloped in the face with a great big dose of irony when I unfolded this morning’s Bellingham Herald. 

Above the fold:  “Support for coal exports.”   The article features a big picture of some determined-looking men carrying boxes of petitions in support of the Gateway Pacific coal export terminal. 

(At least they aren't pretending that it isn't a coal export terminal any more.)

Below the fold:  “State panel presses for action on threat from ocean acidity.” 

As the article states, "[r]ising acidity levels in the oceans pose a serious threat to shellfish and other marine life, and tackling that problem in Washington state will require reducing carbon dioxide emissions. . ."

Read more here:

The “action” to be taken will involve the overstretched Department of Ecology and a little bit of funding for projects.

You know what?  I’m getting sick of being the chump – the dutiful taxpayer who pays to clean the house, only to find that the Very Important Men of Business (maybe I was thinking about the Herald picture when that phrase came to mind) are throwing a giant frat party at the same time. 

In accordance with Get Whatcom Planning’s time-honored role as a bastion of fiscal conservatism, let me save the state some money.  Here’s the bottom line for ocean acidification, in three logical steps:

1.      Ocean acidification is caused by increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. 

That’s what the picture above demonstrates.  It’s from a November 2012 World Bank report, Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must Be Avoided, which you can read here.
It’s not happy reading.  It isn’t intended to be.  As the President of the World Bank Group, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, stated in his introduction, “It is my hope that this report shocks us into action. Even for those of us already committed to fighting climate change, I hope it causes us to work with much more urgency.”

Here’s what the report says about the significance of ocean acidification (at page xv):
Apart from a warming of the climate system, one of the most serious consequences of rising carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere occurs when it dissolves in the ocean and results in acidification. A substantial increase in ocean acidity has been observed since preindustrial times. A warming of 4°C or more by 2100 would correspond to . . . an increase of about 150 percent in acidity of the ocean. The observed and projected rates of change in ocean acidity over the next century appear to be unparalleled in Earth’s history. Evidence is already emerging of the adverse consequences of acidification for marine organisms and ecosystems, combined with the effects of warming, overfishing, and habitat destruction.

2.      To stop, much less reverse, ocean acidification, we have to stop increasing the sources of carbon dioxide emissions.  Soon.  Not in the year 2020, or 2050, or 2100.

The World Bank report emphasized that we do not have time to putter about when it comes to ocean acidification.  Here’s why:
Based on an estimate of the relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and surface ocean acidity, only very low emission scenarios are able to halt and ultimately reverse ocean acidification.  If mitigation measures are not implemented soon to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, then ocean acidification can be expected to extend into the deep ocean. . . .[S]lowing and reversing this will be much more difficult. This would further add significant stress to marine ecosystems already under pressure from human influences, such as overfishing and pollution.  (World Bank report at 25, citations omitted.)

If we need more evidence about what needs to be done, the United Nations Environment Program came out with its own report, which looks at the “gap” between our current plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and the emissions reductions that we need in order to keep the global temperature increase below 2° Celsius.  That’s the standard benchmark for maintaining a planet that more or less resembles our current planet.  We might call that the livable planet scenario – well, aside from sacrificing some island countries, which won't be livable because they'll be under water. 

It is not an optimistic report.  If we don’t assume that we can reach “negative” carbon dioxide emissions in the not-too-distant future, the odds of a livable planet go way down.  "Negative carbon dioxide emissions" means that we need to take more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than we add -- through massive planting efforts, or some technical means that isn't at hand yet.  Of course, the more CO2 we put into the air now, the more we'll have to take out in the future.  If we want a livable planet, that is.

3.      If Washington State provides for coal export, to feed more coal-burning power plants, it is ensuring continued ocean acidification. No need for a panel or for projects or for further studies – we can put a fork in it right now.

The Gateway Pacific terminal proposes to export “thermal coal.” That’s coal that is burned in power plants.  

Fossil fuel use is the most significant source of carbon dioxide.     To be more specific, coal- fired power plants are the largest source of carbon dioxide.   

In a study released on November 20, the World Resources Institute estimated that more than a thousand coal-fired power plants have been proposed around the world.  Three quarters of these plants are proposed in China and India.   

More power plants.  What would that do to the oceans?  Acidify them beyond anything that Taylor Shellfish has seen to date.  All of our messing around the edges won’t change that.   


“But all the other kids are doing it!” you may say.  Look at Australia!  On the one hand, Australia knows that climate change is the greatest long-term threat to the Great Barrier Reef.     On the other hand, Australia is one of the biggest coal exporters in the world – with proposals to double, triple, quadruple its output in the next few years.

And sure, there’s no question that Australia needs to get its house in order.  As an Australian author recently observed about that country’s irreconcilable policies towards coal,

"It’s really not that dissimilar to the son-in-law who everyone pretends is not that bad to keep up appearances, despite the alcoholic outbursts and odd bout of domestic violence.  So long as when Christmas rolls round presents are a-plenty."

Sophie Trevitt, “Coal, It’s a Love Story,” Nov. 25th, 2012.

As  much as I enjoy this metaphor, it occurs to me that drunken sons-in-law rarely threaten the survival of the entire Earth.  The family story that the Bellingham Herald brought to my mind was Cain and Abel.

The one where one brother kills the other.

Let’s say that coal export is Cain and the oceans are Abel.  Washington wants to love both of them, and is digging around the medicine chest to come up with an aspirin for Abel.  But Cain is Cain, and adding a feel-good moment wouldn't change the end of the story.


  1. Jean your clear thinking and excellent writing is a local treasure, thanks once again for speaking out so eloquently.

  2. Jean,

    It is possible coal may be the solution...Even our Department of energy and the Brit's scientific establishment have tumbled to that. Coal gasification has huge potential, especially because it is seen to be the most efficient and economical way to produce hydrogen. If you'd like to read more, my modest little blog: has a piece on the issue.

  3. Jack,

    Accepting for purposes of argument that coal gasification is the wave of the future, I don't see how that argues for coal export. If coal gasification will be the best solution to our energy needs, we should keep our own coal until the technology has made gasification feasible.

    But it's very far from clear that coal gasification is the wave of the future. If you are suggesting that coal gasification will reduce greenhouse gases, carbon storage and capture will have to be perfected. The National Academy of Sciences stated, in 2009:

    "At an estimated cost of about $70/bbl of gasoline equivalent (that is, less than $60/bbl of oil equivalent), gasoline and diesel can be produced from the abundant U.S. coal reserves to have life-cycle carbon dioxide (CO2) emission similar to that of petroleum-based gasoline in 2020 or sooner if existing thermochemical technology is combined with carbon capture and storage (CCS). CCS, however, would have to be demonstrated on a commercial scale and implemented by then."

    It has not been demonstrated yet, and there are some real problems. For example, the Department of Energy states estimates carbon capture technology will increase water use by 50-73% ( at 35). The need for large water supplies for coal gasification apparently has already curtailed its use in dry areas of China (see -- a really interesting article). If we have to choose between water and energy, that's not always such a clear-cut choice.

    Speaking of China, the presumed destination for some of this exported Powder River Basin coal: China apparently is buildling pilot underground coal gasification plants, which theoretically will make carbon capture easier. Such plants will be built next to China's own enormous coal supplies, reducing transportation costs. I have read that the reason that China is currently importing coal is that domestic transportation costs are high.

    Again, this doesn't argue for increased coal exports. It indicates that China is working on a number of ways to be able to use its own coal, which does not bode well for the long-term market for Powder River Basin coal.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. Look at the bright side... The Twinkie has a longer half life than I do as well...

    On a lighter note, I seem to recall in my logic class some four or five decades ago that a common logical fallacy involves attacking the person when one cannot address the question adequately.

    In point of fact, much of the German war machine as long as 70 years ago was run on synthetic fuel, a byproduct of coal gasification, so investigations into gasification are hardly new... Will that be the techology of the future? Entirely possible but, as Jean points out, not certain either.

    1. Jack is responding to an anonymous post. I don't want the blog to become a place for anonymous potshots, so I deleted the comment.

      "Dave," if you want to post a critique of Jack's suggestion, you're welcome to do so -- but please use your own name, and keep the discussion on the issues. Jack's comment was entirely civil, and thus adds to the dialogue.

    2. Dave is my real name and my point remains that asking and taking Mr. Petree's input on environmental issues is foolish since he's spent his entire career negating the impacts of poor development choices by his clients and so excuses and obfuscation are his forte.
      I believe civility doesn't need to turn turtle and present a tender belly just to keep the owners happy and avoid unpleasant truths.

  6. Jack, is your use of irony a deliberate literary device or something you happen to stumble upon inadvertently?

    Two weeks ago, you alleged that this Planning Commissioner was planning for a permanent recession. No proof. No examples. Just another Petreeian potshot at a pop enviro by one who is unable to address a question adequately. But your wisecrack was probably good for a few high-fives at the last Chamber meeting.

    In her response, Commissioner Melious neatly summarizes in her first sentence the position of a wide swath of citizens; the fact that coal export does nothing for domestic power needs. Vince Buys said as much at a candidate's forum last month. I suspect Kelli Linville is of the same opinion, although I have not been following her emerging positions on this issue.

    As a veteran Planning Commission watcher, you are no doubt aware that I took a similar position earlier this year during the Birch Bay Watershed hearings, citing SaskPower's use of Powder River Basin coal to provide electricity to nearly one third of their Saskatchewan ratepayers. And the success of carbon sequestration by that public utility. Saskatchewan keeps their coal for power generation for their citizens and industry. We sell ours to our foreign competitors. China gets the coal and we get the hole.

    The fact is that the proposed coal terminal is a loser. Few jobs generated and plenty of adverse impacts, both economic and social, on Bellingham and the County.

    And I would bet my last dollar that you support the coal port. Period.

    Just like you support more growth in a County that already is zoned for too much.

    It doesn't take a logic course to figure that out.

  7. Does that shrug qualify as a "yes" for the coal terminal ?

    Time to register an opinion on this issue; you and your search engine need to stop beating around the bush; cut the gasbagging and provide a straight answer

    what does Jack Petree on the Environment think of the proposal under consideration?

  8. John,

    Jack Petree on the Environment thinks there is a lot to consider, as do the people driving the discussion on both "sides." Sides is in quotes because actually there are many points of view on the issues involved.

    I will say, a rush to decide, even before the scoping for an EIS is done, might be seen as unseemly in a Planning Commissioner sitting on a body that will make recommendations to the Council one day.

    I am aware you are leaving the Commission and will not be involved in that process.

    I hope I've answered your question.

  9. You haven't; but I answered your question for you in my previous post

  10. The Planning Commission has no decision on Gateway Pacific. That decision is made by one person: the Whatcom County Hearing Examiner in a recommendation to the County Council. There is one option for the Council to send it to the Planning Commission for their recommendation, but that is not a requirement.

    Look up Major Project permits for the process in the zoning code.

  11. David's right... but wanna bet some of the issues get to the planning commission?

  12. If any issues did get to the Planning Commission, I'm sure that Jack would strenuously object to Dave Onkels' participation, based on Mr. Onkels' prejudgment in favor of the terminal. For example, in today's Herald, Mr. Onkels posted:

    . . .I would correct this by shipping cleaner coal to China, who is going to burn coal to produce power in any case. In this way, Gateway Pacific reduces pollution from China and other countries. In this way, nobody pays a tax that distorts resource allocation and reduces economic growth.

    Mr. Onkels is referring to a theoretical discussion of a carbon tax. Of course, the entire basis of the GPT process is market distortion -- the ridiculously low prices paid for Powder River Basin coal leases, the subsidy of transportation, and the externalization of pollution costs throughout the entire process (mining, transportation, and coal burning). But heaven forbid that a tiny portion of these market-distorting externalized costs should be internalized through a carbon tax!

  13. Speaking of a carbon tax, Elizabeth Kolbert, who's been researching and writing about climate change for years, has a short piece in the New Yorker that explains the need: