Unloading Coal by MonetIn the last six years, the U.S. has cut its coal consumption by 195 million tons. Yet 20 percent of that coal has been exported to other countries. 

That’s according to an AP analysis of Energy Department data, and it undermines any claim the United States makes towards building a cleaner future. While the U.S. is not directly burning the fossil fuel, shipping it elsewhere – in some cases, to countries with much looser pollution restrictions – only delays the environmental impact.

As Dina Cappiello writes, “It’s a global shell game on fossil fuels that at the very least makes the U.S. appear to be making more progress on global warming than it actually is.”

In June, President Obama and the EPA stirred controversy by proposing a sweeping 30 percent reduction in U.S. carbon emissions. The proposal has the coal industry up in arms, as it is poised to feel the greatest impact. Coal-fired power plants generate one-third of all U.S. carbon emissions, and some 600 plants will be affected if the EPA regulation becomes law.

Coal burning in the U.S. has already decreased by about 12 percent, yet that figure does not take into account the increasing amount of coal being shipped overseas.

“This is the single biggest flaw in U.S. climate policy,” says Roger Martella, former general counsel at the EPA under President George W. Bush. “Although the administration is moving forward with climate change regulations at home, we don’t consider how policy decisions in the United States impact greenhouse gas emissions in other parts of the world.”

“It’s not taking responsibility,” says Thomas Power, a research professor at the University of Montana. “It’s shifting the responsibility to someone else.”

The United States has the largest recoverable coal reserves in the world, and as it prepares to shift to cleaner energy, companies are planning to build three new coal export terminals in Oregon and Washington. Both states have asked the White House to disclose the environmental fallout such exports will create, but the administration has refused.

“There may be a very marginal increase in coal exports caused by our climate policies,” said Rick Duke, Obama’s deputy climate adviser, in an interview with The Associated Press. But the global footprint will be negligible, say White House officials.

Since 2008, U.S. coal exports to Germany have more than doubled. “This is a classic case of political greenwashing,” said Dirk Jansen, a spokesman for BUND, a German environmental group. “Obama pretties up his own climate balance, but it doesn’t help the global climate at all if Obama’s carbon dioxide is coming out of chimneys in Germany.”

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