Coal dust is the new spotted owl

Coal dust could be the new spotted owl. Two decades ago environmentalists, seeking to shut down the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest, latched on to the spotted owl as their key to success. Today those seeking to end reliance on carbon-based energy are hoping that coal dust, allegedly spewing from trains hauling Montana and Wyoming coal to Oregon and Washington ports, will be their spotted owl.

The spotted owl strategy worked. Today timber harvests in the Northwest are a small fraction of what they were when the spotted owl was declared endangered in 1990. Had the proponents of owl protection declared their objective to be an end to the Northwest’s timber economy, they could never have succeeded politically. Too many jobs were at stake and too few voters knew the difference between an old-growth forest (vast swaths of which were said to be essential to owl survival) and a well-managed stand of second-growth trees.

The anti-carbon folks face a similar political problem. Despite two decades of apocalyptic warnings of global warming, complete with critical acclaim from Hollywood for former Vice President Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth,” anything beyond largely symbolic local action has failed politically. So rather than continue to cry wolf to an electorate unconvinced of danger, environmentalists are proclaiming other risks in hopes of triggering government constraints that will have the indirect effect of keeping the carbon in the ground.

Bill McKibben and 350.org have relied on this approach in their anti-Keystone pipeline crusade. If the pipeline is stopped at the U.S.-Canadian border, maybe the Canadians will leave the oil sands of Alberta in the ground. Among themselves, McKibben’s legions talk openly about the looming disaster of climate change and rising sea levels, but their political pitch is to protect against pipeline leaks and the environmental impacts of constructing nearly 1,200 miles of pipeline. In putting the skids on the permitting of the project, President Obama spoke of the need for environmental impact assessments along the route of the pipeline, not about the prospect of rising sea levels and disappearing island nations.

And so it is with the vast reserves of clean coal in Montana and Wyoming. Neither of those states’ legislatures, nor the United States Congress, is going to mandate that the coal stay in the ground. No amount of political horse-trading could produce the necessary votes and, at least in Montana and Wyoming, there are few legislators willing to risk their seats to such job-killing action.

Meanwhile, here in Oregon, newspapers are filled with stories about coal dust from passing trains, life-threatening delays (for emergency vehicles) at rail crossings, the nuisance of as many as 30 coal-laden trains a day heading to our ports, and even the health risks to Oregonians of emissions from coal burned in China. As with the Keystone pipeline, the proposed remedies would create obstacles to coal transport in the name of environmental health and safety, but with the fervent hope that the coal will stay in the ground.

None of these concerns should be scoffed at. But surely coal-dust suppression is not rocket science and the inconvenience of a possible doubling of daily coal train traffic should be weighed against the jobs created in Montana and Wyoming coal fields and at Oregon and Washington ports. Not to mention the benefits of coal-fired electric plants to the health and welfare of tens of millions of Chinese.