The United States is slowly weaning itself off coal. The black stuff currently accounts for around 40 percent of our energy mix, down from around 50 percent just six years ago. This is largely because many U.S. power plants are switching to natural gas to generate electrons—and, to a much smaller degree, because of the addition of renewable energy sources to our energy grid.
None of that changes the fact that the United States holds the largest recoverable coal reserves in the world. It also does not mean that less coal will be mined, shipped, and burned. Demand for coal in Asia is skyrocketing—China alone plans to double its coal imports in the next three years. The appetite for coal in Korea and Japan is also seemingly insatiable. Guess where those countries are hoping to collect the fossil fuel? The Pacific Northwest.
Well, not directly. Asian countries want coal from massive mines in Wyoming's Powder River Basin, which is the largest coal-producing region in the country. Exports from here are transported via rail, through Montana and Washington, to ports in British Columbia. With those ports at capacity, energy companies want to build new ports in Washington and Oregon. The added capacity would mean coal exports to Asia could double. If they do, the climate impact, through carbon emissions, would be greater than that of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Yet, no one seems to be talking about this outside of the Pacific Northwest.
Snowboarder Jeremy Jones, along with his partners at Protect Our Winters and the documentary filmmakers Plus M Productions, hope to change that with Momenta, a film that opposes the ports proposals and advocates a greater reliance on renewable energy. They've completed a teaser and are seeking to raise $65,000 via Kickstarter to fund the complete film.
At press time, the campaign is short of its goal but Jones says, "We'll raise the funds one way or another. We're definitely committed to the project."
Drawing the links between distant power plants and snowboarding and skiing takes a global view, Jones says, but the evidence of a carbon-based legacy is already being seen through a warming planet and reduced or erratic snowpacks at ski resorts around the country.
"China burning coal is the same as us burning coal. It is a global issue," he says. "The first thing we need to do is stop digging the hole deeper" and the first step is reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.
Closer to home, opponents are also worried about the public health implications of moving up to 37 coal-laden trains each day through communities along the railroad. The two exposure risks are exhaust from the diesel-powered locomotives and coal dust blowing off the loads (which are generally uncovered). A single locomotive might pull as many as 125 railcars of coal.
For mine workers, intense and prolonged exposure to coal dust can lead to pulmonary disease. But there has been very little research into the effects coal dust could have on the health of individuals who live along railroad corridors, says journalist Ashley Ahern, who is part of a team of KUOW Puget Sound Public Radio reporters that has been covering the story.
The ports have not yet been green-lit and are still moving through public comment and permit processes. Those who stand to land jobs in the ports are unsurprisingly quite bullish on them, and the pro- and anti- sentiments are seen and felt throughout Puget Sound. "If you walk into a bar and bring up the ports, everyone knows about them," she says.
Jones says he wants the documentary to move beyond just the coal exports. He imagines a film that goes beyond doom and gloom.
"In this film we're going to be show the amazing progress being made around wind and solar energy—how the costs per kilowatt are going down, and how many people are getting work [within the renewables industry]," he says.
"I'd say out of all the film stuff I've done, that is what I'm most excited about, because we have this clear issue and this solution."