Is Governor Inslee Right About the Impact of Coal Exports on Puget Sound?

June 27, 2014

Would you consider a change of 0.083 percent "unparalleled" and "significant"? Apparently, Governor Jay Inslee does.

Two weeks ago, Governor Inslee visited the Vancouver Columbian editorial board and defended his proposal to require an unprecedented level of analysis regarding proposed export terminals. His process, known as "expanded SEPA," has never been done before and would attempt to analyze the environmental impact not only of the terminal but of all the products being exported.

The governor told the Columbian he felt this was justified because:

We know this, wherever the coal is burned, a portion of the coal that is burned ends up in Puget Sound and off our West coast and makes our water more acidic. We will be evaluating the carbon pollution increase associated with the state of Washington and it appears to be significant. It would have a significant increase in the carbon pollution associated with the economic activity and with an unparalleled dimension the increase in carbon pollution associated with these projects would be unparalleled in state history.

He went on to note that "we've had to move some of our oyster operations to less acidic waters because of carbon pollution."

There are two key claims he makes here:

  1. Human-caused ocean acidification is already causing Washington oyster growers to leave the state.
  2. Coal exports from Washington would have an "unparalleled" impact on Puget Sound and Washington waters.

Both of these claims are wrong.

First, the Governor frequently says that oyster growers are leaving the state. He has stopped, however, saying where they are going. Previously he noted that they moved to Hawaii. It is unlikely that oyster growers looking to avoid ocean acidification would move to the middle of the ocean, which may be one reason the Governor no longer adds that bit of information.

Additionally, the oyster growers that have moved were along the coast, not in Puget Sound. Along the coast, there are natural swings in the pH of the water by 0.6 pH. According to the IPCC, the UN climate change agency, the total contribution of mankind's carbon emissions to acidity is 0.1 pH since industrialization, over 100 years. The human-caused portion of acidification over 100 years, therefore, is only about seven percent the amount that can occur naturally, in a single day, along the coast (the pH scale is logarithmic, making 0.1 only seven percent of 0.6).

Currents, upwelling and other natural forces, not carbon emissions from burning coal, are the cause of changes in the pH level along the coast. Blaming coal for oyster growers moving to Hawaii is simply unscientific.

Second, using the IPCC's science, which the left used to call the "scientific consensus," we can estimate the impact of coal exports from Washington on the Puget Sound.

Like any estimates, there is a margin of error. But, as we will see, even allowing for an wide margin of error, the impact is far from "unparalleled" or even "significant."

  1. In 2012, China used 4.1 billion tons of coal according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). This number will increase in the future, but this is a good baseline number.
  2. The proposed export terminals could ship about 100 million tons of coal annually.
  3. Exports from Washington, therefore, would account for a maximum of 2.4 percent of China's coal consumption.
  4. Coal used by China accounts for 22 percent of worldwide CO2 emissions according to the EIA.
  5. Thus, Washington's coal exports would account for a maximum of 0.54 percent of worldwide emissions and a commensurate amount of ocean acidification.
  6. According to the IPCC, under the second highest emissions scenario, known as RCP 6.0, the oceans will see pH fall (i.e. become more acidic) by 0.2 by the year 2100.
  7. This means the maximum amount the coal from Washington would impact Puget Sound would be to lower pH (i.e. increase acidity) by 0.000836.
  8. Since the pH scale is logarithmic, the change in pH over the next 100 years due to the carbon from coal exported from Washington is 0.083 percent of what can occur daily, naturally, in Willapa Bay.

Put simply, the Governor claims that a change in the pH of Puget Sound or the coast of Washington by 0.083 percent over 100 years as compared to what occurs naturally in one day, is "significant" and "unparalleled."

One final note. All of this assumes China will not find a replacement for the 2.4 percent of their coal consumption that would come from Washington's export terminals. That is clearly false. It is likely that China will have no difficulty finding a replacement for most or all of that tiny amount of coal, meaning the net impact of stopping coal exports from Washington's on ocean acidification would be literally zero.

Our consistent position has been that every energy source should pay for the impacts it causes and coal emits more carbon than any other energy source. Our position is also that Washington should focus on policies that yield the greatest environmental benefit. Governor Inslee's plan to stop the export terminals based on the potential impact of exported coal on ocean acidification clearly fails the second test and is not supported by the science.