This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
In our globalized world, old-fashioned geography is not supposed to count for much: mountain ranges, deep-water ports, railroad grades—those seem so nineteenth century. The earth is flat, or so I remember somebody saying.
But those nostalgic for an earlier day, take heart. The Obama administration is making its biggest decisions yet on our energy future and those decisions are intimately tied to this continent’s geography. Remember those old maps from your high-school textbooks that showed each state and province’s prime economic activities? A sheaf of wheat for farm country? A little steel mill for manufacturing? These days in North America what you want to look for are the pickaxes that mean mining, and the derricks that stand for oil.
There’s a pickaxe in the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming, one of the world’s richest deposits of coal. If we’re going to have any hope of slowing climate change, that coal—and so all that future carbon dioxide—needs to stay in the ground. In precisely the way we hope Brazil guards the Amazon rainforest, that massive sponge for carbon dioxide absorption, we need to stand sentinel over all that coal.
Doing so, however, would cost someone some money. At current prices the value of that coal may be in the trillions, and that kind of money creates immense pressure. Earlier this year, President Obama signed off on the project, opening a huge chunk of federal land to coal mining. It holds an estimated 750 million tons worth of burnable coal. That’s the equivalent of opening 300 new coal-fired power plants. In other words, we’re talking about staggering amounts of new CO2 heading into the atmosphere to further heat the planet.
As Eric de Place of the Sightline Institute put it, “That’s more carbon pollution than all the energy—from planes, factories, cars, power plants, etc.—used in an entire year by all 44 nations in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean combined.” Not what you’d expect from a president who came to office promising that his policies would cause the oceans to slow their rise.
But if Obama has admittedly opened the mine gate, it’s geography to the rescue. You still have to get that coal to market, and “market” in this case means Asia, where the demand for coal is growing fastest. The easiest and cheapest way to do that—maybe the only way at current prices—is to take it west to the Pacific where, at the moment, there’s no port capable of handling the huge increase in traffic it would represent.
And so a mighty struggle is beginning, with regional groups rising to the occasion. Climate Solutions and other environmentalists of the northwest are moving to block port-expansion plans in Longview and Bellingham, Washington, as well as in Vancouver, British Columbia. Since there are only so many possible harbors that could accommodate the giant freighters needed to move the coal, this might prove a winnable battle, though the power of money that moves the White House is now being brought to bear on county commissions and state houses. Count on this: it will be a titanic fight.