The Real Cost of Coal Exports and Fossil Fuels

With major fossil fuel projects ramping up across the globe, fossil fuel interests are ignoring the catastrophic costs that carbon pollution causes (and will cause) around the world. Meanwhile, critics of clean energy technologies continue to spread disinformation to discredit the emerging sector and promote fossil fuels as the only viable source of energy.

Coal exports are on the rise. U.S. coal exports exceeded the Department of Energy’s projections by 30% in 2012 as reported by Nate Aden, a PhD student from the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California, Berkeley. Coal demand is being driven in part by economic growth in China and other developing countries, but these developing countries are not alone. The World Resources Institute found that 1,100 coal-fired power plants are being proposed around the world. And, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, countries in Europe were the destination for 45% of U.S. coal exports in 2012.

Australia and Indonesia also have major coal export projects underway. According to the Guardian’s Graham Readfearn, Australia is already the world’s largest exporter of coal, sending twice as much CO2 abroad than it emits at home.

Readfearn writes that exports of carbon fuels will come back to bite Australia in the form of climate disruption. In the past two months, Australia has been ravaged by hundreds of wildfires caused by the “biggest and longest heat wave on record in January.” This type of extreme weather is exactly what 97% of climate scientists have been warning our leaders for over two decades. The New Scientist cited Jon Nott who researches extreme weather events at James Cook University (in Australia) saying, “The frequency of more intense events is going to increase” as a hotter world becomes the new reality.

The Washington Post reported, “If we want to avoid severe global warming, we’ll have to stay within a strict carbon budget in the decades ahead…” A new report by Greenpeace details the 14 biggest threats to the “climate stabilization budget” with the top three being China’s coal reserves in the western provinces, Arctic oil drilling and Australian coal exports. Coal exports account for three of the 14 fossil fuel projects under development that would “blow past [our strict carbon] budget.”

So, with these identifiable threats to stabilizing the earth’s climate, why aren’t we rapidly decommissioning fossil fuel projects around the world?

One answer lies in the powerful and fossil fuel-funded opposition to clean energy solutions to climate change.

Clean energy opponents argue that clean energy technology is “too expensive” while ignoring the much larger subsidies and externality costs of fossil fuels (for more on these advocacy groups see our report, “Fossil Fuel Front Groups on the Front Page”).

While the argument about clean energy may have been true a decade ago, rapidly falling prices of wind, solar and other clean technologies are rendering that argument obsolete. In January, the International Renewable Energy Agency released a report (PDF) showing that “the rapid growth in the deployment of solar and wind is driving a convergence in electricity generation costs for renewable power generation technologies at low levels.” The report goes on to say that the rapid cost reductions of installed renewable energy technology mean that data one or two years old can significantly overestimate the cost of electricity from renewable energy technology. In other words, cost reductions are making clean energy competitive with fossil fuels around the world.

Moreover, the costs for fossil fuels (including fuels coming from the 14 projects above) do not account for the potential damage their emissions will cause as we drift towards climate disaster. These fossil fuel pollution externalities should be factored into the cost of business. After factoring in the cost of pollution, maybe digging up coal and shipping it across the globe won’t look like such a great investment.

For future generations, let’s hope the real cost of fossil fuels is factored into our calculations soon.

Donors Trust: The Secret Group Funding Attacks on Clean Energy & Climate Science

New research shows almost $120 million flowed from two secretive groups, called “Donors Trust” and “Donors Capital” to 102 groups denying climate science and attacking clean energy. The Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg reports that “the funds, doled out between 2002 and 2010, helped build a vast network of think tanks and activist groups working to a single purpose: to redefine climate change from neutral scientific fact to a highly polarizing ‘wedge issue’ for hardcore conservatives.”

Greenpeace research (.pdf) into the tax records of these organizations shows that publicly-disclosed funding for climate denial groups from foundations connected to the Koch Brothers began to decrease in 2006. But, funding from Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund soared from less than $20 million per year to almost $35 million per year from 2006 to 2009. Kert Davies, research director at Greenpeace said to the Guardian, “These groups are increasingly getting money from sources that are anonymous or untraceable. There’s no transparency, no accountability for the money. There is no way to tell who is funding them.”

Many of these organizations funded by Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund are also working to attack clean energy. Goldenberg notes in a companion article that recipients, including groups like the Heartland Institute and Americans for Prosperity (AFP), have received millions from the two secretive organizations.

AFP, which received $7.6 million from Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund in 2010 (43% of its budget), drove anti-wind efforts last fall, leading a coalition of fossil fuel-funded groups to write a letter calling on Congress to block tax credits for wind energy. The Washington Post reported in November 2012 that the Heartland Institute, which received $1.6 million from Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund in 2010 (27% of its budget), joined with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to push model legislation to state legislators in an effort to eliminate state clean energy standards across the country. In addition, organizations that are part of the State Policy Network (SPN), which received $4.8 million from Donors Trust in 2010 (36% of its budget), published reports bashing clean energy standards that are now likely being used to attack clean energy policies in states across the country (like Kansas and Ohio).

Furthermore, the Guardian revealed in a third story that Donors Trust bankrolled the Franklin Centre for Government and Public Integrity, a newly established organization founded in 2009, which is running a campaign to “stop state governments moving towards renewable energy.” The Franklin Centre has strong ties to American’s for Prosperity and the Koch Brothers, including former staff members of both AFP and a Koch Family Foundation according to a PR Watch investigation.

Are these attacks ideological? Or are other fossil fuel interests like the Koch Brothers funding these efforts to stop a potential market threat? We know that fossil fuel corporations that have a financial incentive to stop the growth of the clean energy industry and their benefactors and foundations have funded many of these groups over the years. With an ability to hide the money trail through groups like Donors Trust, I would bet fossil fuel interests continue to fund fake grassroots campaigns and front groups to attack clean energy.