So let me make a few things perfectly clear:
I think people have every right to be worried about the possibility of health impacts from coal dust blowing from open cars, and think Portlanders and other Oregonians should ask the Federal government to study those potential impacts before allowing a gazillion open coal cars to come through our neighborhoods.
I think global warming is the overriding issue of our time, recognize that the burning of coal is a huge contributor to global warming, and am very proud to live in a state where a significant number of people are actually worried about global warming. In fact, I am actually kind of proud - as well as sad - that some of my former biggest fans hate my guts right now because they think some comments I have made about coal have hurt the climate change cause. I wish I lived in a world where more voters were mad at more politicians about global warming.
But I don't think that we're going to get anywhere asking the federal government to stop coal exports through the Northwest based on global warming concerns. Barack Obama rarely mentions climate change, but he does talk about increasing exports, and his campaign web site does talk about "clean coal." I think it's conceivable the Feds might listen to arguments about the effects of coal dust on health, but I just can't imagine that this is the issue that will finally wake them up to the seriousness of climate change. If we really want them to listen, I'd focus on the dust.
And yes, I do have a have a hard time with the idea that, even if concerns about local health impacts were addressed (if the trains were covered, for example), Oregonians would have standing to object to the transportation of coal through our state, because of our concern about global warming.
My feelings are not entirely rational, I guess. They are based on my own particular moral code, which is largely based on the lawyerly idea that "if you don't know how you wouid defend your statement on cross-examination, you better not say it at all." Which is closely tied to Immanuel Kant's rule, "act always as if the maxim of your action should be a universal law." Which is closely tied to "people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones." Which is related to Pogo's immortal statement, "We have met the enemy and he is us."
The maxim here, it seems, is that "the people of every jurisdiction have a responsibility to prevent the transmission of fossil fuels through their borders on the way to buyers in other jurisdictions." So if I embraced that maxim, here are the questions I would expect to face on cross-examination:
"Oregon gets most of its gasoline from a pipeline that goes through Washington State. If Washington climate activists sabotaged that pipeline, causing a gas shortage and price spike in Oregon, would you applaud those activists?"
"Half a million PacifiCorp customers in Oregon get their electricity from coal plants in Utah and Montana that goes through transmission lines in Nevada and Idaho to get here. If Nevada and Idaho activists cut those transmission lines, would you applaud?"
I am not being sarcastic or facetious here. I think that it's exactly the same thing. If we have the right to interrupt the flow of fossil fuels to China, then Washingtonians and Nevadans have the right to interrupt the flow of fossil fuels to us. And I'm not sure we'd like the results.
I also think we need to be prepared for cross-examination by people in China, who might say: "We are making greater investments in renewable technology than you are. We emit less than half the carbon dioxide, per capita, than Americans do. We are even making progress on adopting Western-style emissions standards for mercury and sulfur from our coal plants. Importing Powder River basin coal, which is lower in sulfur and mercury than most of our coal, would help us to meet those standards. What right do you have to prevent us from doing that - when you yourselves are using the same damned coal?"
So again: I think we have a right to demand a halt to the coal train plans until the railroads cover the trains, or a Centers for Disease Control study tells us that dust from open cars isn't a health threat.
But as far as global warming is concerned, I think we should be using the prospect of coal exports primarily as a teachable moment in which we take action to reduce the DEMAND for coal by Oregonians and Oregon companies. Because ultimately, with fossil fuels, as with heroin, you beat the problem by reducing demand, not by trying to interrupt the supply.
Here's one idea. PGE (which at this point still gets some of its energy from the Boardman coal plant) and PacifiCorp (which gets most of its energy from coal) both have "opt-in" green energy programs, where people agree to pay a little more to get some or all of their power from renewable sources. But only 6.5% of PacifiCorp customers, and I think about 11% of PGE customers, buy in. Polls show, however, that over 50% of Americans claim they are willing to pay more for renewable power.
Based on a lot of recent behavioral economics research, I think the primary reason more people haven't signed up is not hypocrisy, but inertia: people just don't get around to filling out the form. So I think the Legislature should order PGE and PacifiCorp to move from opt-in programs to opt-out programs: start charging everyone a few bucks extra for renewables, unless they send in a form opting out. I'd give people plenty of warning -- highlight the change for months in advance on the outside of your billing envelope, so it's not a surprise. But go ahead and do it.
I know there will be opposition. I raised this suggestion at a City Club forum recently, and the head of PGE didn't like it at all. But I think it's a fight worth having. Oh, and how about this: we could have a gift program, too, where those of us who can afford to would buy renewables for other people who can't afford the extra $5 a month. Kind of a "sponsor an environmentalist" idea.
Here's another idea. We have at least two major Oregon companies, Nike and Columbia Sportswear, that do most of their manufacturing in Asia, where coal is the dominant energy resource. Let's ask Nike and Columbia Sportswear to pledge that, first, they only get power from coal plants that meet American standards for mercury and sulfur emissions, and second, that their contractors' Asian operations meet some sort of "renewables portfolio standard" for energy use - that by X date, they get Y percentage of their energy from renewables. We as Oregonians have, I think, a lot more power to influence Nike's and Columbia Sportwear's decisions than we do to affect the global coal export-import market.
Here's a third idea: Let's start promoting the fact that Portland's pro-bicycle policies are also anti-coal policies. In the long run, I think that we are going to be seeing a lot more electric cars on the road, as oil gets more expensive. But as long as electricity comes from fossil fuels, coal included, cars will still be spewing carbon dioxide. PacifiCorp customers' electric cars are actually "coal cars". Now, it's my understanding that even a coal-driven electric car is more carbon-efficient than most gasoline cars. And right now, America-wide, "only" 33% of our electricity comes from coal, down from 45% a few years ago -- but it's being replaced, not by renewables (which are still a small fraction of the total), but by natural gas, which is less carbon intensive than coal, but still a fossil fuel. Anyway, at the moment, because most Oregonians are PGE and PacifiCorp customers, and even PGE is still using some coal, most electric cars use coal.
So if we really want to fight global warming, Priuses are not the best weapon: bicycles are. And if Portland can meet its goal of having 25% of trips made by bicycle, it will be a great example to the nation and the world ... including China, where, if everyone who drives bought an electric car, they would be overwhelmingly "coal cars," because that's where most of China's electricity comes from. So if you want to fight coal -- support the Portland bike plan.
I realize, again, that my views on this issue are shaped by my particular moral code, and my moral code probably isn't any better than the next guy's. I don't think the people fighting coal exports are hypocrites; I think they have the best of motives. I'm just personally a lot more comfortable, on this issue, fighting to reduce demand than trying to interrupt the supply. And I'm more comfortable with strategies that rely on making some sacrifices and changing some behavior of our own than on a strategy of interrupting the flow of cheap energy to people in other parts of the world.