Bill McKibben is coming to Bellingham on May 31. That would be pretty exciting if it weren’t for the reason he’s dropping by. On March 28 President Obama opened up public land in Wyoming to coal mining. (This just a few days after he lit a candle at Oscar Romero’s tomb in San Salvador—see my April 1 post. Who is this guy?) Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company, will mine Wyoming’s Powder River basin, and has contracted with SSA Marine (partially owned by Goldman-Sachs) to build a terminal at Cherry Point in Ferndale, the next, smaller town up the road from us, enabling shipment of from 20 to 50 million metric tons of coal per year to Asia, mainly China. Wyoming to China via Whatcom County, Washington. Imagine our surprise.
“There’s virtually no place on the continent that’s done a better job of showing us how to live locally,” McKibben said to the Cascadia Weekly (May 25). “Now, by quirk of geography, Bellingham is going to have to make some decisions about what kind of role it wants to play globally.”
About three hundred jobs are at stake for Ferndale, more while the terminal is built, and like every other area in the U.S., we could use them. But coal chugging along train tracks next to the waterfront in Bellingham will set back plans for developing what used to be the Georgia Pacific paper mill and surrounding lands, and that development represents more jobs still, although many will be service jobs. Bellingham can look forward to more noise and diesel pollution if Gateway is built, but none of this is the point, not for McKibben.
Carbon emissions have already raised global temperatures one degree, and weather over the last year has illustrated what kinds of havoc climate change can wreak. Spring in Bellingham is wetter than it used to be and will get wetter still. Small and blighted tomato crops are one thing, but even kale needs sunshine. McKibben and others have spent their adult lives explaining in a thousand different ways that we have to live differently or we won’t live at all. Coal may be plentiful but it is the dirtiest of fossil fuels. “If we burn coal at the rate envisioned by the owners of Powder River basin—here or in China,” McKibben says, “it’s very clear that will push us far, far deeper into serious global warming territory. The highest use of our coal reserves is to keep them where God put them—underground where they can do no harm.”
One thing this is not about is energy independence. The coal’s leaving, remember? It might be about the money the U.S. owes China, and the pressure that debt exerts in the other Washington. It’s very likely about Peabody Energy’s political clout. (Half the electricity in the U.S. is coal-generated.) And it is surely about raising the standard of living for 1.5 billion people in China—in the short run.
Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, by Bill McKibben, will keep you awake at night. You’ll be in good company. Wish us luck.