The Carbon Cost of Coal Trains

The debate is heating up over the transport of coal from mines in Wyoming and Colorado to west coast ports, where the coal will be shipped to Asian markets.  Combining the vast appetite for coal in Asia with the vast stores of underground carbon in the US will accelerate the already rapid rise in atmospheric carbon. However, business friendly policies have made it almost impossible to do anything about this impending disaster.  In the US, interstate transportation is a federal matter, and local authorities have no voice in policy decisions.  On the international front, free trade agreements make it very difficult to restrict private buying and selling of anything.  As a result, there are few tools available to prevent what is sure to be an international environmental catastrophe.


What are the real costs?  There is a new study released September 2012 by DARA, an independent humanitarian organization.  The Climate Vulnerability Monitor 2nd Edition is a comprehensive look at the consequences of our carbon economy and climate change that we are saddled with today and in the near future.  The bottom line (and there is much more than just the bottom line in this report – so follow the link and read it!) is that right now the global community is suffering economic losses due to climate change and costs associated with a carbon based economy to the tune of about 1.6% of global GDP, increasing to 3.2% of GDP by 2030.  This is a conservative report which minimizes the costs associated with dramatic natural disasters and incorporates a multitude of studies from many international experts.

If we just use the bottom line numbers, we can make some economic statements about the proposed project to ship US coal to Asia via Northwest ports.  At present, the atmosphere has about 120 ppm (parts per million) more CO2 in it than before we started burning fossil fuels.  Once carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, some of it will remain there for thousands of years.  However, to make our calculation simple, we will assume that its lifetime is 100 years.  If we take the current economic cost of the 120 ppm of CO2 at about 3% of global GDP (weighting slightly to the future since the CO2 will still be around then and the delayed consequential costs are increasing) then, with world GDP at about $70 trillion, we find that global cost of 1 ppm of CO2 can be estimated at:

Economic cost of 1ppm CO2 = World GDP x Cost of 120 ppm at 3% of World GPD/year x Lifetime of CO2 / Present concentration of CO2 = $1.75 trillion/ ppm CO2

One part per million of CO2 in the atmosphere contains about 2 GT (GT = gigaton = a billion tons) of carbon. About half of the carbon burned ends up in the atmosphere, the rest increases the acidity of the oceans.  We can conservatively estimate that cost of that atmospheric carbon is at least $1.75 trillion / 2 GT / 2 = $440 billion per gigaton or about $440 per ton of coal.  The price of coal is between $50 and $100 per ton, so clearly if producers or consumers of coal had to pay the true cost of this product, the economics of coal energy would look very different: the costs would be prohibitive.

Besides economic damage, there are serious health consequences as people cope with the consequences of climate change and the pollution from carbon combustion.  The Climate Vulnerability Monitor estimates that about 5 million excess deaths can be attributed to climate change and our carbon infrastructure.

Present plans call for shipping about 0.15 GT of coal from west coast ports to be burned in Asia.  That puts the initial annual climate costs at $65 billion.  The estimated coal reserves in Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and North Dakota that would be served by rail transport to the west coast ports is more than 100 GT.  If the entire reserve is sent into the atmosphere, the carbon would add another 50 ppm CO2 to the atmosphere, effectively ensuring a much less habitable planet.

The businessmen that want to foist this catastrophe upon us will only see profit.  They are not being charged for the true climate costs of their actions.  The Tragedy of the Commons is that the individual can make great profit, while the consequences of such exploitation result in great degradation of our common air, water and climate resources.

Some people, however, are finally realizing the urgency of the problem.  The impact of severe weather events is hard to ignore.  This year’s drought in the corn belt is expected to cost ~$77B, hurricane Sandy about $50B.  Last year there was hurricane Irene, not to mention the unusual snowy New England winters and a cold wave throughout Europe the last few winters.  The consequences of yesterday’s profligacy are only now becoming apparent.  The full effect of warming “in the pipeline” won’t be felt for another couple of decades.

When the coal train promoters come to town, there are people ready to fight.  The deck is stacked against us, but the moral high ground is on our side.  How can anyone allow this project to continue, in light of the fact that we will be saddling the world’s children with a burden that makes our national debt look like peanuts?  How can true patriots not chain themselves to the rails to prevent the trains from running, knowing that the consequences of every load of coal are deaths from pollution and poverty for years to come?  The true heroes will be those who prevent the trains from running by whatever means it takes.


  1. Thanks, Gary

    This piece leaves me with a classic ‘if only’………….If only we were able to transform our NIMBY passion into ‘chain one’s self to the tracks’ concern for the commons. We are personally caught in that gap: Our carbon f.p. looks lovely green in daily life, but we turn our prints (coal) black by flying to Austin to visit the kids; and this does feel sinful–going right ahead and doing what we believe to be wrong in the impersonal scheme of life. Perhaps some prophetic genius will show us all how to reconcile the human condition with the health of mother earth. She is a bit overdue…


  2. Pro-business defenders often use the tragedy of the commons argument as a justification for enclosure of property. You make a good point about how the atmosphere is also a commons, in this case exploited as a waste dump for burnt fossil fuels.
    Shipping coal to Asia is as insane as piping shale oil to Texas for export. There’s the fuel used to transport the coal overseas. The coal is used to power inefficient factories that make products cheaply because of low labor costs, and many of the products are then shipped back to this country. The real carbon footprint is much greater than just the coal burned. We have to find a way to live more modestly and get away from this insanity.

    1. Hi Mike,
      I never really understood how the TOTC could be twisted to argue for locking up the commons. Rather it is a clear case where you NEED government regulation so the common good can be protected from the exploits of the individual. Goes to show the power of ‘spin’.
      Indeed, the global carbon trade is only a small part of the problem. Coming to terms with planetary limits should be high on all of our personal agendas.

      1. If only the ‘government’ was not so intertwined with corporate interests, i.e corporatocracy. One small example among the ocean of corruption and the revolving corporate/government door would be possible Secretary of State nominee Susan Rice’s half million dollar stake in the Keystone pipeline.

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