If Montanans tried to use their own coal, every man, woman and child in the state would have to burn just under half a railroad carload a year.

As each car holds about 100 tons of coal, enough to provide electricity for 100 people annually, we obviously need to find someone else to consume the 44 million tons we dig out of the eastern corner of the state each year.

But the question is, who will that be?

For Arnie Sherman, at the University of Montana’s World Trade Center, the answer lies overseas.

“It’s a game-changer for Montana if it’s handled correctly,” Sherman said. “There’s an inordinate appetite for coal in Asia, and not just China. The Chinese imported 40 million tons last month. They look like they’re going to double their imports by 2016 of foreign coal. Last year, China imported almost 4 billion tons, and India 600 million tons. If they’re going to double imports, there’s only a limited amount of places they can purchase coal from. And we happen to have the kind of coal most of the world wants.”

Montana coal has lots of energy, low sulphur and easy access. Compared to the underground tunnels or mountaintop removal techniques needed in other parts of the country, the strip mines around Colstrip and the Tongue River are simple and safe. The low production cost helps offset Montana’s geographical handicap: We’re a long way from any population center with coal-fired power plants.

And U.S. interest in coal has declined. A Northwest Power Planning Council plan of six years ago forecast the Pacific Northwest region would benefit so much from energy conservation and efficiency measures, there was little need for new generating capacity. Portland, Ore., council member Phil Rockefeller said that demand has shrunk even more than predicted.

“Market conditions have also changed very dramatically because of natural gas,” Rockefeller said. “Its low cost may make it more difficult for coal-based facilities to operate at a profit. Coal’s long been the cheapest fuel, not accounting for carbon costs.”

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Those carbon costs have caught up with three major coal plants in Oregon and Washington. Two burners in Centralia, Wash., will close in 2020 and 2024, respectively, because they cannot profitably meet new state air-quality standards. And a third in Boardman, Ore., will shut down in 2020 because it can’t meet federal air rules.

Rockefeller said in both states, the power plant owners and coal opponents reached a compromise on the schedule. The owners get to retire their facilities or convert them to natural gas without losing a chunk of their investment. And the opponents get three coal plants out of the atmosphere.

That means less acid rain in Mount Rainier National Park and less haze along the Columbia River. But it also means fewer domestic customers for Montana coal.

Sherman’s overseas markets might seem like an obvious solution, until the coal reaches the shore of the Pacific. There it hits a bottleneck in the region’s underdeveloped shipping port network.

Wyoming coal shippers are already moving trains to Vancouver, British Columbia, in hopes of reaching a ship. Exports from that Canadian port jumped 46 percent in 2011 after plans to expand shipping facilities in Bellingham, Wash., and several sites in Oregon stalled, according to Platts.com, an energy industry information service.

A new coal-loading facility at the Port of St. Helens, Ore., could be ready to send 3.5 million tons of coal a year to Asia by 2013. Coos Bay, Ore., officials are also reviewing port expansion plans.

Peabody Energy, one of the nation’s biggest coal firms, backs the Bellingham expansion proposal, which would move 24 million tons of coal a year. It faces local opposition from environmental groups arguing it would violate federal Clean Water Act standards as well as contribute to overall global warming.

And the Asian market remains inscrutable. Ross Keogh, a Sagebrush Energy analyst in Missoula, recently visited China’s coal-producing region. Acknowledging he was mainly looking at the country’s work on wind energy, he cautioned the coal market could follow the U.S. phaseout.

“China is actively developing its coal resources – you’d see huge backlogs of trucks everywhere,” Keogh said. “But I think they don’t want to send us capital for our coal which they just burn. The Chinese government is much more into planning on energy and the economy, and they’re really aggressive about setting carbon-reduction goals that can only be met by reducing coal production. So is this a market opportunity that exists for 10 years? Probably. For 20 – probably not. For 30 years? Almost certainly not.”

An International Energy Agency source quoted in Platts’ review of the U.S. coal industry noted that China’s volatile markets could lurch up or down without warning. That could result in domestic demand doubling or falling by two-thirds in the next five years.

At the UM World Trade Center, Sherman remains optimistic. He recalled how on a recent visit to China, a clean car left on the street collected enough dust from nearby power plants that he could write his name on the hood. But he argued that forecasts more activity, not less.

“There’s no way they could reduce their energy consumption in our lifetime to the point they’re not importing more and more and more,” Sherman said. “I don’t see them ever importing less than 5 or 6 billion tons a year. Say they cap it – they’re still importing 6 billion tons. We’ve been talking about cutting our energy emissions how many years, 30? It just doesn’t happen overnight.”

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