At Gristmill, enviro-blogger David Roberts is doing the happy dance. One of his shticks is to provide regular updates on how "coal is the enemy of the human race." In the last 24 hours, two news reports have sent him over the moon: an Associated Press article reporting that plans for at least 16 coal-fired power plants have been "scrapped" in the United States over the past six months and, even better, the decision by a Kansas regulator to deny, on air-quality grounds, an application to build two new coal-fired power plants.
This is the first time a coal plant air permit application has ever been denied on the basis of CO2 emissions.
Good news, certainly, for anyone worried about the manifold environmental problems caused by the burning of coal. But here's another couple of news items that arrived Friday morning.
- China's imports of coal this month exceeded its exports, for the first time, even though China's coal production has risen 11.7 percent in the first seven months of 2006 over a year earlier, according to statistics provided by Chinese authorities.
- Caterpillar, the world's biggest construction equipment manufacturer, reported that sales in North America took a big hit in the third quarter, in part due to the collapse of the homebuilding sector. But sales in Asia, and in particular, China, are a bright spot. Demand for coal-mining equipment of all kinds -- shearers, road headers, hydraulic support systems and armored face conveyors -- is surging. Chinese mining companies are demonstrating a particular appetite for Caterpillar's biggest truck, the monstrously huge 797B, which can carry a payload of 380 tons.
According to the Christian Science Monitor, "China accounted for two-thirds of the more than 560 coal-fired power units built in 26 nations between 2002 and 2006." If coal is the enemy of the human race, then the 797B is the Dark Lord's preferred means of transportation and China is his playground. With China boosting imports of coal even as it expands domestic production, mining companies around the world seem more likely to be happy dancing their way through the next few decades than environmentalists.
Like Roberts, I am encouraged when I see U.S. regulators making strong statements about air quality. But the question remains, how long will it take China to make the same transition? Is it even possible for China to make that transition without a democratic system that enables the masses to make their clearly growing dismay at widespread environmental pillage politically potent? At the ongoing national congress of the Communist Party of China, President Hu Jintao constantly referenced the importance of ensuring that future economic growth is environmentally sustainable. Meanwhile, Caterpillar's sales in Asia of earth-moving equipment, diesel generators and giant trucks are up 35 percent over last year. According to the Wall Street Journal, Caterpillar sold more than $1 billion of goods in China in 2006, and hopes to quadruple that number by 2010.
What do you suppose the carbon footprint of a Caterpillar 797B truck is? I would guess that the $3 million or so price tag for each truck might even go up, just a bit, if the vehicle's contributions to global warming were factored in.