I watched a coal unit train zip through the Belgrade-Bozeman, Montana, area yesterday. The Montana Rail Link unit train was 125 cars in length and presumably bound for Pacific Northwest seaports. The coal is sourced from the Powder River Basin, an approximately 20,000-acre part of Wyoming that supplies about 40 percent of U.S. coal. An informative guide to the Montana-Pacific Northwest coal train situation is the July 2012 Western Organization of Resource Councils’ publication – RAIL IMPACTS OF POWDER RIVER BASIN COAL TO ASIA BY WAY OF PACIFIC NORTHWEST TERMINALS.
My viewing of the coal train passage coincided time-wise with a press release on the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Medium-Term Coal Market Report. The IEA contends that by 2017 coal will closely rival oil as the number one global energy source.
“Thanks to abundant supplies and insatiable demand for power from emerging markets, coal met nearly half of the rise in global energy demand during the first decade of the 21st Century,” said IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven. “This report sees that trend continuing. In fact, the world will burn around 1.2 billion more tonnes of coal per year by 2017 compared to today – equivalent to the current coal consumption of Russia and the United States combined. Coal’s share of the global energy mix continues to grow each year, and if no changes are made to current policies, coal will catch oil within a decade.”
The growth trend for coal will increase globally except for in the U.S. where cheap natural gas will bring a decline to coal usage. China and India will be the big markets for coal over the next five years, accounting for than 90 percent of the increase in coal demand.
In a Huff Post Green Blog, van der Hoeven notes that although affordable coal has aided emerging economies …” the surge in coal burning is not good news. Despite industry’s effort to promote “clean” coal, the black matter remains the dirtiest of all fossil fuels. The average coal-based power plant emits a tonne of CO2 per MWh generated, about twice the level of a power plant using combined-cycle gas turbines.”
The relentless growth trend for coal currently appears untouched by either climate policy or the economic slowdown. Given the present political situation, it may well be that cheap natural gas continues to be our biggest hope for carbon emission reductions.