The fact that U.S. coal goes to China and comes back as air pollution is a nasty surprise to many this year. Chinese industrialization has gone on unchecked by environmental controls for decades. As a result, pollution has reached catastrophic levels there. Cancers and other illnesses related to air pollution have overwhelmed the national health apparatus. Desertification creates massive dust storms that engulf the capital of Beijing. A Jan. 25 article in Boston.com has 47 photos that offer proof that the air pollution crisis continues in China.
The problem is pollution that crosses east and over the Pacific Ocean to the western United States and America is getting back something that we contributed: Pollution from coal burning.
Coal burning is a major source of air pollution in China and America is providing more of the coal than ever before. Many are unaware that the coal fired air pollutants are small particles that travel easily across the vast Pacific Ocean to land on the western United States.
How is this happening? U.S. coal mining firms have been enjoying a financial boom from mining coal on federal lands in Wyoming and Montana. According to a Jan. 18 Scientific American article, 30 million tons of coal ships to the Pacific and Asia from northwest ports each year.
This output could grow to 150 million tons of coal or more annually. The U.S. government provides the incentive by leasing the land and taking in royalties. According to a Dec. 4 MSN article, international sales bring in far more money than domestic sales, leading to a boom in exports.
When coal producers mine federal lands, they pay a 12.5 percent per ton royalty to the federal government. International sales are valued at much higher rates as the coal sells for about ten times more in China and other Asian countries than it does at home. This is because American markets have developed alternatives of wind, solar, fossil fuel and other energy sources. A ton of coal worth about $13 near the Powder River Basin mines in Wyoming, for example, could sell for about $1,300 in China, minus shipping and other costs.
This setup allows the coal mining interests to sell vastly more coal to China and to make a lot more money.
How does the pollution travel so far to land at the western coasts of the Americas? In 2010, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the California Air Resources Board conducted the first study ever to track lead particles that were unique to China. A Dec. 1, 2010 Lawrence Berkeley Lab article said that it was unknown how the lead particles made the 7,000-mile journey from the smokestacks of China to the west coast of North America at collection points in San Francisco.
In summary, U.S. companies mine coal from federal lands in Wyoming and Montana. They ship massive quantities of the coal from ports in the U.S. northwest to China and other Asian countries, enjoying tax and other incentives. The U.S. government collects much higher royalties from the international sales of coal.
This is how U.S. coal goes to China and comes back as air pollution.