Coal countries: A growing U.S. export also transfers pollution

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A 12 percent drop in the U.S. power sector’s carbon emissions since 2008 has elicited praise for the Obama administration’s efforts to combat global warming.

Yet the accomplishment comes with a caveat smeared in soot: While coal consumption in the United States fell by 195 tons, roughly a fifth of that amount was sold overseas, according to an Associated Press analysis.

American coal exporters have found a high demand for the fossil fuel in China and India, with its use contributing to CO2 emissions in those countries. The Obama White House, despite its efforts toward cleaning the environment, has resisted calls for an evaluation of the global footprint of U.S. coal.

While rising coal exports (which have nearly tripled in the last 12 years) contribute to the earnings of the U.S. coal industry and help maintain coal production jobs, they also come with a price when the countries consuming the fuel have lower environmental standards and weak emission controls.

This is worth noting as the Environmental Protection Agency promotes its Clean Power Plan, which would substitute less-dirty energy sources for coal and cut carbon pollution 30 percent by the year 2030. The EPA is taking testimony on the measure from industry, environmentalists and the public today and Friday in Pittsburgh. As necessary as such cuts in domestic emissions are, they can be undermined when big polluters such as China generate toxic air that ultimately affects everyone’s atmosphere.

The burning of coal without effective steps to limit pollution contributes to the depletion of the ozone layer and the rise in sea levels worldwide. Greenhouse gases don’t respect political borders.

No administration or Congress can stop the export of coal. But it’s incumbent on America to not only model responsible energy use but also help and pressure nations that burn U.S. coal to contain its harm.

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