Hundreds of people gathered in Oakland City Hall on Monday night for a public hearing on a divisive topic: the possibility that coal from Utah could be moved through a proposed export terminal in the city and put on ships bound for Asia.
The controversy stems from the development of a facility called the Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal on the site of a decommissioned Army base. While the terminal is meant to handle a variety of commodities, the fact that coal could be one of them concerns environmental and public health advocates.
Debbie Niemeier, a professor in civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Davis, spoke at the hearing and is the author of a report on the impacts that coal exports could have on Oakland's air quality, as well as on global warming.
She said that between 9.5 and 10.5 million tons of coal could be shipped through the terminal annually, and that the likely destination is Asia.
"First and foremost, the state of California should not be engaged in moving coal through its ports," Niemeier told VICE News. "When you ship ten and a half million tons of coal through the Oakland terminal, you generate roughly about 30 million tons of [carbon dioxide] each year."
"We feel the brunt of that combustion process, back on North American soil," she added.
If burnt in a power plant in China, that coal can generate particulate matter that blows across the Pacific Ocean and spoils the air quality in the United States. And the greenhouse gases that a coal-powered plant emits, regardless of where it might be located in the world, contribute to rising seas and warming temperatures felt in far away places.
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The bigger context is the decline of the US coal industry, said Eric de Place, a coal expert and policy director at the Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based environmental group. A common misconception is that coal is a primarily Appalachian commodity. But about half of the coal produced in the United States is mined from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming.
The industry has been hard hit both by cheap natural gas and new clean air regulations. Today, coal produces 39 percent of America's power, down from about 50 percent in 2005, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
"If you were a western coal producer, and watching your domestic markets evaporate, and seeing high prices in Asia," de Place told VICE News, "you didn't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that, maybe the best thing to do would be to try to get your coal across the ocean."
But those high Asian prices have fallen, he said. And, with political pressure mounting on diplomats to agree on an international climate pact later this year in Paris, many nations that were projected to be big consumers of coal are instead developing renewable energy proposals or turning to cleaner-burning natural gas.
"The wheels have come off," de Place said, referring to the US coal industry's financial situation. "They're a rolling ball of disaster at this point."
Compared to the Powder River Basin, Utah and Colorado produce less coal, but it's higher quality — Utah coal contains about twice the energy as Powder River Basin coal, said Jeremy Nichols, the climate and energy director of WildEarth Guardians, an environmental organization. And the biggest coal producer in Utah is Bowie Resource Partners, which stands to benefit if the terminal is built, he said.
"They seem to be taking the gamble that exports are going to help them succeed where other coal companies are completely failing," Nichols told VICE News.
In Oakland, part of the concern about coal exports stems from the effects from the coal trains — and coal dust they will generate — that will transport the fuel from Utah and through communities like West Oakland, a place with already high air pollution levels, said Niemeier.
"It's a largely poor African-American neighborhood," Niemeier said, "that's going to get none of the benefits [of the commerce], but all of the exposure."
Dr. Muntu Davis, the director of the Alameda County Public Health Department and its medical officer, said he doesn't oppose the creation of a bulk export terminal but is concerned about coal coming through it.
"[Coal would add] another source of air pollution to an area that is already disproportionately burdened by pollution sources that exist already," Dr. Davis said. Both West and East Oakland already have high rates of asthma hospitalizations and emergency room visits compared to the rest of the county, he added.
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Jess Dervin-Ackerman, the conservation manager for the Sierra Club's San Francisco Bay chapter, said that coal was originally not part of the conversation surrounding the terminal.
"We actually sat down with the developer himself, and he said to us at that meeting, and in his newsletter, in December of 2013, that he definitely wasn't bringing coal through this terminal, and that we were misguided in thinking so," Dervin-Ackerman told VICE News.
The site's developer is California Capital & Investment Group (CCIG).
In a blunt email to Phil Tagami, CEO of the company, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said, "Please declare definitively that you will respect the policy of the City of Oakland and you will not allow coal to come through Oakland."
Steve Burns, a spokesman for CCIG, said coal would be handled as cleanly as possible, and that it doesn't make financial sense to exclude potentially high-volume commodities from the project.
"That comes dangerously close to making the entire project uneconomic at the outset," he said.
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