This year an epic fight is brewing along the West Coast, one that may make as much difference to the future of our climate as anything that happens in Washington, D.C., and one that may also serve as a decisive battle in defining the U.S. relationship with China.
Nature left a lot of coal in the Powder River Basin of southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming. The region produces as much coal as all of Appalachia; its Black Thunder Mine is the nation's largest. Most of this coal takes a long train trip southeast to fuel many of the nation's power plants.
But that business seems unlikely to grow. Over the last few years, environmental groups, led by the Sierra Club, have succeeded in defeating plans for as many as 100 new coal-fired power plants. And the existing number of boilers is likely to dwindle over time.
So if you're a mine owner, you start looking for new markets. The obvious one is China, where the explosive growth in demand for electricity is overwhelming even its own large supply of coal. Coal exports to Asia from the Powder River Basin have begun to grow.
Those exports can't really take off, however, unless West Coast ports dramatically expand their deepwater loading capacity. That's why, for instance, Arch Coal has teamed up with an Australian company to propose a new port development in Longview, Wash., that would help funnel 5 million tons of coal a year to Asia.
Environmentalists are trying desperately to block the port expansion, and they are bracing for other such plans up and down the West Coast. This is not just because of the increased traffic, coal dust and other local effects, but because environmentalists know that if we have a chance in the fight against climate change, that carbon has to stay in the ground. They're trying to plug a leak that could turn into a flood.
"This is undermining everything we've accomplished," said Sierra Club spokesman David Graham-Caso.
The irony for the West Coast is that these states are leading the nation in converting to clean energy. Seattle's City Council has established carbon-neutrality as a key city goal; California is basing much of its economic strategy on clean energy innovation. The jobs the ports will generate — in Longview, estimates are for perhaps 70 workers to oversee the largely automated coal-loading process — aren't worth the damage to that vision of the future.
And in the larger picture, the economic impact is clear. What do you think China will do with all that cheap coal? Maybe manufacture things? As KC Golden, policy director of Seattle's Climate Solutions group, puts it, "Can you imagine standing at the mouth of the Columbia River, watching ships sail in from Asia carrying solar panels and electric car batteries and plasma TVs, passing ships from America carrying coal?"
Proud America, coal-shoveler to the world, a resource colony to feed the Asian industrial machine.
Washington state officials recently urged a review of the global environmental impacts of the proposed port, which prompted a temper tantrum from Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
"Over in Seattle, at every single intersection, on every street corner, they've got a Starbucks coffee or a Seattle's Best, and they're drinking all that hot coffee and talking about how bad that coal is," he said.
There is, in fact, a coffee shop on every available corner in Seattle, but they use no coal-fired juice at all; the power comes mostly from hydro and wind. Still, his none-too-subtle class and regional warfare presages the political fight ahead.
There's trillions of dollars worth of coal in the Powder River Basin, and that represents immense pressure. It will be a fascinating fight, with lots of characters worth watching. Warren Buffett, say, whose Berkshire Hathaway owns the Burlington Northern railroad. If its coal cars turn into the backbone of the Global Warming Express, it doesn't matter how much money he leaves to charity; his lasting legacy on Earth will be clear.
The port fight is a little test of just what kind of future we want, and just how far past tomorrow we're capable of thinking. If we blow open the West Coast bottleneck and send a river of coal to China, the answer will be pretty clear.
Bill McKibben is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont.