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Big Oil Won't Let the Developing World Kick the Habit

In the coming decades, virtually all of growth in energy consumption will be in developing countries, and corporations like Exxon are doing their best to fuel the shift.

| Tue May 27, 2014 3:08 PM EDT

The EIA summarized the situation this way: "Companies in key parts of the US coal supply chain—both producers and railways—have increased sales to Asia because of rising Asian coal demand, overall strong export prices, and lower US consumption of coal to produce electric power." Looked at from another perspective, diminished carbon emissions from coal in the United States—much touted by President Obama in his embrace of natural gas—has no significance when it comes to climate change, because of the greeenhouse gases being produced when all that coal is consumed in Asia.

To increase sales yet more, the giant coal companies are promoting the construction of new shipping terminals on the West Coast, including two each in Oregon and Washington State. The largest of these, the Gateway Pacific Terminal near Bellingham, Washington, will handle up to 48 million metric tons of coal a year, most of it destined for China and other Asian countries.

Although the terminals are often promoted by local officials as sources of new jobs, they are sparking fierce opposition from community activists and Native Americans who view them as posing a severe threat to the environment. Claiming that coal dust and spills from trains and loading facilities will harm fishing sites they deem vital, members of the Lumni tribe are citing longstanding treaty rights in their efforts to block the Cherry Point Terminal, one of the planned Washington State facilities.

In the Pacific Northwest, opposition to the coal terminals and the rail lines that will be so crucial to their operation—some of which will traverse Indian reservations and pass through green-minded cities like Seattle—is gaining strength. The process has been similar to the way climate activists mobilized against the Keystone XL pipeline that, if built, is slated to bring carbon-dense tar sands from Canada to the US Gulf Coast. But the coal companies and their allies are pushing back, insisting that their exports are essential to the country's economic vitality. "Unless the ports are built on the West Coast," said Jason Hayes, a spokesman for the American Coal Council, US suppliers won't be viewed as "reliable business partners" in Asia.

Although community and tribal opposition may succeed in blocking or delaying a terminal or two, most analysts believe that, in the end, several will be built. "There are two billion people in Asia who need more power, so eventually more US coal will get onto global markets," says Matt Preston, an analyst for the energy consultancy firm of Wood Mackenzie.

Perpetuating the Fossil Fuel Era

In the end, all these efforts to boost fossil fuel sales in Asia and other developing areas will have one unmistakable result: a sharp rise in global carbon emissions, with most of the growth in non-OECD countries. According to the EIA, between 2010 and 2040 world carbon dioxide emissions from energy use—the main source of greenhouse gases—will rise by 46 percent, from 31.2 billion metric tons to 45.5 billion. Little of this increase will officially be generated by the planet's wealthiest countries, where energy demand is stagnant and tougher rules on carbon emissions are being put in place. Instead, almost all of the growth of CO2 in the atmosphere—94 percent of it—will be sloughed off on the developing world, even if a significant part of those emissions will come from the combustion of US fossil fuel exports.

In the view of most scientists, an increase of carbon emissions on this scale will almost certainly lead to a global temperature rise of at least four degrees centigrade and possibly more by the end of this century. That's enough to ensure that the changes we are already seeing, including severe droughts, stronger storms, raging wildfires, and rising sea levels, will be eclipsed by exponentially greater perils in the future.

Everyone will share in the pain from such warming-induced catastrophes. But people in developing lands—especially the poorest among them—will suffer more, because the societies they live in are least prepared to cope with severe catastrophes. "Climate-related hazards exacerbate other [socioeconomic] stressors, often with negative outcomes for livelihoods, especially for people living in poverty," the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change observed in its most recent assessment of what global warming will mean for planet Earth. "Climate-related hazards affect poor people's lives directly, through impacts on livelihoods, reduction in crop yields, or destruction of homes, and indirectly through, for example, increased food prices and food insecurity."

Certainly, the giant fossil fuel companies bear a moral, if not as yet in our society a legal, responsibility for the intensification of climate change and the lack of serious response to it. Beyond this, their carefully planned strategy of selling carbon products to those most at risk can only be viewed as outright immorality. Just as health officials now condemn Big Tobacco's emphasis on cigarette sales to poor people in countries with inadequate health systems, so someday Big Energy's new "smoking" habit will be deemed a massive threat to human survival.

Above all, Big Energy is insuring that one small ray of good news when it comes to climate change—the contracting use of coal, oil, and gas across the developed world—will prove meaningless. The economic incentive to sell fossil fuels to developing countries is undeniably powerful. The need for increased energy in developing countries is no less indisputable. In the long run, the only way to meet these needs without endangering our global future would be through a mammoth drive to expand renewable energy options there, not by shoving carbon products down their throats. Rex Tillerson and his cohorts will continue to claim that they are performing a "humanitarian" service with their new "tobacco" strategy. Instead, they are actually perpetuating the fossil fuel era and helping to create a future humanitarian catastrophe of apocalyptic dimensions.

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What's Left. A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation.

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