Export of Coal and Natural Gas from the US?

Energy depletion makes this unlikely


You cannot export fuel that does not exist

by Mark Robinowitz

The rush to export is based on the idea that there is abundant oversupply of energy resources that could be sent to Asia, but the geological reality suggests this is irrational exuberance.

Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute (www.postcarbon.org) was a keynote speaker at this year's Public Interest Environmental Law Conference. His book "Blackout: Coal, Climate, and the Last Energy Crisis" is a rare look at how coal supplies are smaller than most people think. There is enough to further foul the air but not enough to continue growth of combustion, certainly not hundreds of years worth. Peak Coal is either near or here.

A 2009 report from Clean Energy Action notes that "Between 2002 and 2008, while coal costs were rising dramatically, the US Geological Survey reduced the amount of economically accessible coal in the Gillette coal field of the Powder River Basin [in Wyoming] from 23 billion tons to 10 billion tons." This makes coal export less likely.

Furthermore, to export coal from Wyoming via Coos Bay, trains would have to move past Portland, which has much better export terminals. The Eugene to Coos Bay rail route is winding, hilly and slow. Heavy coal trains are more likely to use better tracks to reach ports with greater shipping capacity. The Army Corps of Engineers is reviewing a proposal to set up a transfer station from trains to barges for the Port of Morrow, next to the Boardman coal burning power station in eastern Oregon. If this is built it would avoid congested freight rails in the Port of Portland that are already clogged with imports from Chinese factories.

The Western Power Grid stretches from Tijuana to B.C. to Denver. Half of the electricity comes from coal which is still the backbone of the grid. Obama is pushing "clean coal" which is just greenwashing more coal combustion, including new "cleaner" coal burners.

One motive for the notorious Appalachian mountaintop removal is to extract thinner coal seams that are hard to mine via conventional techniques. Parts of the Appalachians have depleted coal mines with tailings that leach sulfuric acid into river headwaters (the Potomac River headwaters is one example).

Exaggerations of coal, natural gas and oil supplies not only boost stock values of energy companies but also underlie false estimates of future economic growth, since more fossil fuels would mean more economic activity. Heinberg's most recent book "The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality" is a useful antidote.

In July 2010, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. told a crowd at McDonald Theater that we could replace coal generated electricity with natural gas but political problems were the obstacles for the conversion. However, Peak Natural Gas in the US was 1973. The US imports about half of Canada's natural gas production. Liquid Natural Gas imports into the US have doubled in the past decade (although from only 1% to 2% of US consumption). Replacing coal electricity with natural gas is not possible unless we stop heating homes with gas.

Shale gas "fracking" has temporarily increased US production, but claims that this could provide 100 years of supply are extreme exaggerations. The toxic impacts of fracking have finally received public scrutiny -- the documentary Gasland is an excellent summary -- but the fact that fracking wells deplete much faster than conventional drilling has not gotten as much attention.

The only reason anyone is floating the idea of exporting US coal to China is the illusion that there is so much natural gas that we can replace some of the coal with gas. The Port of Morrow proposal for transfering coal from trains to barges is supposed to become active in 2016. Geologist Art Berman, an industry insider who has examined shale gas fracking, estimates that the fracking bubble may burst around that time. When shale gas is no longer a bubble, plans to shift more coal to gas will go up in smoke and the export proposals go away, too.

In the winter of 2010 / 2011, natural gas delivery systems broke down in New Mexico during a cold snap when there wasn't enough gas to go around. Some small towns were shut off from gas supplies.

The new LNG import terminal in Baja California is providing gas for US electric generators. Supporters had tried San Francisco and Humboldt Bay before building in Mexico. As gas supplies tighten there will be more pressure for LNG imports.

In 2001, Enron partnered with Coburg Power to build a huge natural gas powered electric generator north of Eugene. It would have been at the intersection of the main electric power line for Lane County where it passes over the natural gas pipeline. After Enron pulled out (they went bankrupt for other reasons), I asked the primary promoter where the station's fuel would come from. He replied it would tap into the pipeline. I then asked where extra fuel would come from since the gas in the pipeline was already heating existing homes and businesses and he had no reply. Coburg Power never got built.

If there is any export of coal and / or natural gas through Coos Bay it is unlikely to last long since we cannot export fuel that does not exist. Will the federal government even allow fossil fuel exports as the permanent energy shock intensifies, since export would let US cities have brownouts and blackouts to provide power for Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing?

Fossil fuel depletion will force reductions in energy use. Hoping to switch from one poison to another delays the inevitable "power down." Renewable energy is great but it could power a smaller, steady state economy, not the illusion of "green growth."

The author has used solar energy for two decades and has studied fossil fuel depletion since 1986.

Documentation at:






some links from Post Carbon Institute


Export Stupidity
Posted Mar 27, 2014 by Richard Heinberg

Congress is holding hearings this week on the possible lifting of a US oil export ban instituted in the 1970s to promote national energy self-sufficiency and has invited a number of “experts” with dubious ties to the oil and gas industry to explain to them why it’s such a good idea. Following Russia’s near-annexation of Crimea, American politicians are intent on undercutting Russian president Vladimir Putin’s greatest geopolitical asset—his country’s oil and natural gas exports. If the US could supply Europe with large amounts of fuel, that would reduce the Continent’s dependency on Russia while depriving Putin of needed revenues.

Lawmakers from both parties are also using the hearings to urge the Obama administration to speed up natural gas exports as a hedge against the threat of a conceivable Russian cutoff of gas supplies to Ukraine and other countries. Four Central European nations—Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic—have already made formal requests for US exports.

There’s just one tiny problem with all these fervent desires and good intentions. On a net basis, the US has no oil or gas to export.

Sure, our nation produces a lot of these fuels, and the amounts have been growing in recent years. But the United States remains a net importer of both oil and natural gas. Let me repeat and emphasize that: the United States remains a net importer of both oil and natural gas.





REPORT: Will Natural Gas Fuel America in the 21st Century?
David Hughes
Published May 29, 2011
In this groundbreaking report, David Hughes shatters the myth (advanced by industry, government, and many environmental organizations) that domestic natural gas can be a "bridge fuel" from high-carbon sources of energy like coal and oil to a renewable energy future.


ASPO USA: Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas, USA


ASPO-USA in the Media

A June 26 2011 New York Times article raising questions about the true cost and prospective profits of developing shale gas has set off a firestorm of public scrutiny and controversy within the industry. ASPO-USA Director Art Berman was consulted for and quoted in the article, and has been featured in follow-up interviews and commentary (including this segment on CNBC's "The Kudlow Report").

ASPO-USA has been leveraging the opportunity to focus media attention on a fundamental premise of ASPO-USA's work—that fossil fuels, including natural gas, face mounting supply challenges amidst rising demand, and America should not bet our future on hopes of endless cheap energy.








Coal Train
Fossil fuels make tracks through Oregon
By Camilla Mortensen

(But these projects are unlikely to happen, and certainly cannot happen for long.)