NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — As the Obama administration weans the U.S. off dirty fuels blamed for global warming, energy companies have been sending more of America's unwanted energy leftovers to other parts of the world where they could create even more pollution.
This fossil fuel trade threatens to undermine President Barack Obama's strategy for reducing the gases blamed for climate change and reveals a little-discussed side effect of countries acting alone on a global problem. The contribution of this exported pollution to global warming is not something the administration wants to measure, or even talk about.
"This is the single biggest flaw in U.S. climate policy," said Roger Martella, the former general counsel at the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush. "Although the administration is moving forward with climate change regulations at home, we don't consider how policy decisions in the United States impact greenhouse gas emissions in other parts of the world."
Over the past six years, American energy companies have sent more coal than ever before to other parts of the world, in some cases to places with more lax environmental standards.
The consequence: This global shell game makes the U.S. appear to be making more progress than it is on global warming. That's because it shifts some pollution — and the burden for cleaning it up — onto other countries' balance sheets.
"Energy exports bit by bit are chipping away at gains we are making on carbon dioxide domestically," said Shakeb Afsah, an economist who runs an energy consulting firm in Bethesda, Maryland.
As companies look to double U.S. coal exports, with three new terminals along the West Coast, America could be fueling demand for coal when many experts say that most fossil fuels should remain buried to avert the most disastrous effects of climate change.
But the administration has resisted calls from governors in Washington and Oregon to evaluate and disclose such global fallout, saying that if the U.S. didn't supply the coal, another country would.
White House officials say U.S. coal has a negligible global footprint and reducing coal's use worldwide is the best way to ease global warming. The U.S. in 2012 accounted for 9 percent of worldwide coal exports, the latest data available.
"There may be a very marginal increase in coal exports caused by our climate policies," said Rick Duke, Obama's deputy climate adviser, in an interview with The Associated Press. "Given that coal supply is widely available from many sources, our time is better spent working on leading toward a global commitment to cut carbon pollution on the demand side."
Guidance drafted by White House officials in 2010 did outline how broadly agencies should look at carbon emissions from U. S. projects. Four years later, that guidance is still under review.
"They have sat on their hands," said George Kimbrell, a senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety, which has sued the administration over this delay.
Carbon dioxide, regardless of where it enters the atmosphere, contributes to the sea level rise and in some cases severe weather in the U.S. and the world.
Changing the global system to account for production would carry political risks, especially for the U.S., which is trying to boost production of energy and exports even as it addresses global warming.
"The U.S. needs to be pragmatic on this," said Jason Bordoff, director of Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy. "If our coal exports are very small and having no or little impact on global greenhouse gas emissions ... the government has to take into account the economic and foreign policy costs of restricting exports." He was a National Security Council energy and climate change adviser to Obama until January 2013.
Over the past six years, as the U.S. cut coal consumption by 195 million tons, about 20 percent of that coal was shipped overseas, according to an AP analysis of Energy Department data.
Less coal being burned here has helped the power sector reduce carbon emissions by 12 percent and left more U.S. coal in the ground. But a growing share is finding its way abroad.
Analyses suggest U.S. exports could be reducing by half or wiping out completely the pollution savings in the U.S. from switching power plants from coal to natural gas
The nexus of the challenge can be found in and around Norfolk, Virginia, which exports more coal than any other place in the U.S. and is already experiencing one of the country's fastest rates of sea level rise.
When the Prime Lilly, a massive cargo ship, set sail from Norfolk recently, its 80,000 tons of coal were destined for power plants and factories in South America. The 228,800 tons of carbon dioxide contained in that coal disappeared from America's pollution ledger. But it still pollutes the planet.
It's a planet hungry for American coal. U.S. exports to Germany have more than doubled since 2008, providing a cheaper alternative to cleaner-burning natural gas and a replacement for nuclear power, which is being phased out after Japan's nuclear accident.
Last year, Germany's carbon dioxide emissions grew by 1.2 percent, in large part because the country burned more coal.
German environmental officials say the recent boom in coal-fired power is making it harder for the country to meet its climate-protection goals, even as it has increased renewable energy and participates in a carbon market that has lowered emissions throughout Europe.
Activists partly blame the U.S.
"This is a classic case of political greenwashing," said Dirk Jansen, a spokesman for BUND, a German environmental group. "Obama pretties up his own climate balance, but it doesn't help the global climate at all if Obama's carbon dioxide is coming out of chimneys in Germany."