Coal at risk as financing dips

Richest nations cut government support for new power plants

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A year ago, companies were proposing six coal-export terminals in Washington and Oregon. Now there are three: the plan by Millennium in Longview, which Vancouver city officials have estimated could bring up to 16 1.5-mile-long trains through town daily; a proposal near Bellingham, where Pacific International Terminals, a subsidiary of SSA Marine Inc., wants to handle 54 million import/export tons of bulk commodities annually, largely coal exports; and the “Morrow Pacific” plan, under which Ambre Energy would haul 8 million tons of coal annually from the Port of Morrow to the Port of St. Helens. Coal would be hauled on covered barges from the Port of Morrow near Boardman, Ore., 190 miles down the Columbia River to the Port of St. Helens, Ore., where it would be loaded onto vessels headed for Asia.

WASHINGTON — The world’s richest nations, moving to combat global warming, are cutting government support for new coal-burning power plants in developing countries, dealing a blow to the world’s dominant source of electricity.

First it was President Obama pledging in June that the government would no longer finance overseas coal plants through the U.S. Export-Import Bank. Next it was the World Bank, then the European Investment Bank, dropping support for coal projects. Those banks have pumped more than $10 billion into such initiatives in the past five years.

“Drawing back means there is less capital for these projects,” said Richard Caperton, managing director for energy at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “I don’t expect private capital to move in and fill the void, either, because there is a real risk that these plants will be turned off early.”

Demand for coal in developing nations has taken on increasing importance as the combination of stricter environmental regulations in the U.S., increasing deployment of renewable resources and a drop in the price of natural gas have pushed utilities to shutter coal plants.

Among the three government-backed lenders, the World Bank has provided $6.26 billion for coal-related projects over the past five years, according to data from Oil Change International. The Ex-Im bank provided more than $1.4 billion to two coal projects, one in South Africa and another in India.

While the pullback is unlikely to have a direct impact on China, the world’s top user of coal, it could curb construction of new plants in countries such as South Africa and Vietnam and dampen new export markets for coal mined in the U.S., Indonesia or Australia by companies such as Peabody Energy and Alpha Natural Resources.

“We’ve never seen a cascading sentiment that coal is not acceptable like we’re seeing happen right now,” said Justin Guay, the head of the Sierra Club’s international climate program. Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club are fighting coal plants and coal mines, because coal releases the most carbon dioxide per unit of energy of any major fuel source. Scientists say carbon emissions are to blame for warming Earth’s temperatures, increasing the number and severity of storms and melting polar ice.

Supporters of the fuel source say it’s a low-cost way for poor nations to provide light, refrigeration and air conditioning to their people.

The move by lenders against coal turns “our backs on millions without electricity and chooses not to help them achieve a better standard of living,” said Nancy Gravatt, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association in Washington, which represents producers such as Alpha and Arch Coal Inc.

Analysts are divided about long-term global coal demand.

In a July 25 report, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projected world coal use would increase by a third to more than 200 quadrillion British thermal units a year by 2040 as developing nations boost its use. Gregory Boyce, chief executive officer of Peabody, the largest U.S. coal producer, noted that German and Japanese coal use is climbing as they cut nuclear power generation. Imports by China and India are on a pace to increase 15 percent a year, Boyce said in a conference call with analysts on July 23.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. offers a less buoyant outlook.

“We believe that thermal coal’s current position atop the fuel mix for global power generation will be gradually eroded,” Christian Lelong, an analyst at Goldman Sachs in Australia, said in a report on July 24. “Most thermal coal growth projects will struggle to earn a positive return.”

Coal is now used to generate 40 percent of the world’s electricity, and its use has grown more than 50 percent in the past decade, according to Energy Information Administration. The U.S. is the world’s second-largest producer of coal, after China, which is also the world’s top importer of coal, according to the World Coal Association.

According to an analysis by the World Resources Institute, 1,200 coal-fired plants are being proposed globally, with more than three-quarters of those planned for India and China alone.

China can finance its projects on its own, and India has only relied on export financing in a few cases. As a result, the recent changes are likely to impact other nations in Africa and Asia, which don’t have the same access to credit. Each group said in some instances it would still finance coal, and activists are worried about those exceptions.

“The implementation of all three of those initiatives is yet to be fleshed out,” Doug Norlen, the policy director of Pacific Environment, which is fighting these kinds of fossil- fuel projects, said in an interview. “These will be huge steps, if properly implemented.”