“Buffett Rule” on Coal Exports in Jeopardy

by Kyle Ash

July 25, 2012

Warren Buffett will be irritated with a new bill from Congressman Jim McDermott (D-WA) that would enforce the polluter-pays principle upon transportation of coal. Buffett’s company Berkshire Hathaway bought BNSF Railway under the notion ofprofitingoff the socialized-costs principle – where the public pays for pollution and other costs created by extractors and transporters of coal. Due partly for his very anti-social investment plan in coal exports, Buffett has been named among the top “climate killers” in America. Congress should pass McDermott’s bill immediately.

McDermott’s bill charges $10 per ton of coal extracted to cover the costs of local environmental and social impacts of transporting it throughout the country. It also requires rail cars be covered, since a significant amount of coal dust is spilled in transit. The timing of this bill is good, given the rash of coal train derailments lately. About 1 billion tons of coal are mined and transported across the country every year.

Buffett and other investors in ports and railroads in Oregon and Washington are hoping to export hundreds of millions of tons of coal out of the Pacific Northwest. The Obama administration has already demonstrated it is on board with the plan to sell taxpayer-owned coal in Wyoming at about 1/100th of the price it will fetch in SE Asia. This makes the “Buffett Rule” on pro-tycoon tax rates look like a deceptive sideshow, as Obama’s government pawns American assets to wealthy investors who will sell it abroad. We know one reason Buffett loves Obama, but it’s unclear why Obama loves him.

Coal magnates have long argued they provide a cheap, secure energy source. Convinced, the federal government has long provided all sorts of love to the likes of Peabody and Arch Coal. This is why Senator Bernie Sanders introduced the End Polluter Welfare Act (S.3080). The coal industry lies about what they peddle being cheap. If all the socialized costs of mining, transporting, and burning coal were part of our electric bill, we’d pay as much as three times more per month. Coal is unaffordable.

The coal industry doesn’t give two coal ash dumps about our energy security. Last week, Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA) released a report showing that exports of Appalachia coal more than doubled in the last few years. They’re destroying our mountains to produce electricity in Europe. And if Buffett gets his way, Appalachia coal would be a small part of this growing US coal export market.

The proposals to export the Wyoming Powder River Basin (PRB) coal to Asia through Pacific Northwest ports are destructive at every turn. First, the coal is strip mined from primarily public land. Next, coal companies like Peabody transport the coal by rail lines like BNSF. Each train would be over a mile long, travel hundreds of miles and bisect communities from Missoula MT, to Sandpoint ID, to Spokane WA and down the iconic Columbia River Gorge to Portland, OR. These huge and heavy trains would spew toxic coal dust and carcinogenic diesel fumes, block traffic and impede emergency responders at intersections. Coal trains would also squeeze out passenger rail and benefit from rail investments made to increase mass transit. Coping with these export plans would require massive new rail infrastructure, much of which would be covered by taxpayers.

Congressman McDermott just wants the coal industry to cover some of the local burdens they instigate on public health and safety from transporting coal. But this is certainly not the majority of the costs they currently outsource to us. This bill doesn’t cover the disastrous environmental costs of strip mining coal, such as pollution of waterways from acid mine drainage and tailings, deforestation, topsoil loss, and pollution from diesel-burning mining equipment. McDermott’s bill doesn’t cover local impacts on communities in Asia burning American coal. McDermott’s bill does not cover the truly catastrophic impacts of global climate disruption which will be made worse by burning possibly billions of tons of coal in Asia that would otherwise stay in the ground.Indeed, the combined effect of all six west coast coal export proposals would be among the worst developments globally for the climate.

McDermott’s bill appears like a completely reasonable request in our current anti-reason Congress, which has no problems socializing costs and privatizing benefits for fossil fuel investors. But a reasonable Congress would prioritize keeping coal in the ground. Coal is poisonous – to people, fish and wildlife, our air and water, and the climate.

this blog is co-written by Bethany Cotton

Kyle Ash

By Kyle Ash

Kyle Ash formerly served as Greenpeace's Legislative Policy Expert, responsible for domestic and international climate change policy analysis and campaign strategy. He has been quoted in Politico, Greenwire, the New York Times, and CNN, and was one of the most frequently quoted sources during the Copenhagen Climate Conference.

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