MITT ROMNEY’S charge that America had declared “war on coal” may not have won him last year’s presidential election. Yet this once-mighty industry is struggling, squeezed by the plummeting cost of natural gas and a torrent of tough new environmental rules. Last year 37.4% of American electricity production came from coal, down from 48.5% in 2007. The Energy Information Administration expects a slight rise this year as gas prices begin to creep up. But further restrictions on power-station emissions are expected, and the shale revolution is marching on. If coal has a future, it is surely elsewhere.
For many, that means Asia. Demand for coal imports is growing in post-Fukushima Japan, as it decreases its reliance on nuclear power; in India, where domestic supplies cannot keep up with the growing economy; and, most tantalisingly, in China, which burns almost half the world’s coal, and which became a net importer of the stuff in 2009.
Such facts make mouths water in the Powder River Basin, straddling Wyoming and Montana (see map), where more than 40% of America’s coal is mined. Some already makes its way to Asia, mainly via Canadian ports. But exporters want to build four new terminals on the western shores of the United States—two apiece in Oregon and Washington—to send up to 130m tonnes more a year. The largest, the 1,500-acre (600-hectare) Gateway Pacific Terminal near Bellingham in northern Washington, would handle up to 48m tonnes of coal a year, as well as up to 6m tonnes of other dry bulk, such as grain.
Energy wars in America’s West are nothing new. But the rancour aroused by the coal-export proposal has become as toxic as a four-chimney belcher. Coal states accuse coastal ones of high-minded NIMBYism. Campaigners say corporations have a primeval attitude to the environment. Cities and counties lock horns over jobs and trade. Everyone accuses everyone else of bad faith, basic innumeracy and, in some cases, black ops.
Local objections focus on the trains that would carry coal to the Gateway Pacific Terminal. At capacity, 18 trains a day would run to and from the facility: nine bearing coal and nine returning empty to the mines. BNSF Railway, one of the project’s backers, says little new rail infrastructure would be needed, as traffic remains below its 2006 peak. Sceptics doubt that, and say the bill will be dumped on taxpayers.