Is Los Angeles Really Coal-Free? Kinda, Sorta, Maybe

L.A. has more work to do to become coal-free | Photo: Kym/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A public event today made it as official as can be: the City of Los Angeles will derive none of its electrical power from coal 12 years from now. The city's Department of Water and Power (DWP) will stop buying power from Arizona's coal-burning Navajo Generating Station in 2015, and do likewise with Utah's Intermountain Power Plant by 2025. It's a landmark achievement, making L.A. the largest U.S. city to do so, and those who fret about coal's contribution to global warming owe those who brought this day about a debt of gratitude.

But Greater Los Angeles still has work to do before it can call itself "coal-free."

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Don't get me wrong: today's a landmark day, and LADWP's plans, are well worth today's celebration-cum-press conference, where former Vice President Al Gore and Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune joined Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to mark the nation's largest public utility's commitment to kick the coal habit. "Mayor Villaraigosa's decision to end Los Angeles' reliance on dirty coal and guide the city to a more sustainable future is a bold step on the path towards solving the climate crisis," said Gore, who now chairs the Climate Reality Project. "This courageous action should serve as an example to leaders all across our country. We have the tools at hand, it's time to act."

Angelenos worried about their region's contribution to coal use don't need to look too far afield to find places where they can act. As it happens, Wilmington-based firm the Metropolitan Stevedore Company -- generally called Metro Ports -- is the sole remaining investor still hanging onto its involvement in a proposed coal export terminal in Coos Bay, Oregon. Fellow investors Mitsui & Co. and Korean Electric Power dropped out of the project earlier this month, and Metro Ports has until the end of the month to decide whether to renegotiate its contract with the Port of Coos Bay.

The terminal, one of five proposed for the Pacific Northwest, would export millions of tons of coal each year to Asian energy markets to be burned in power plants. This would counter much of the progress the United States has made in lowering its emissions. What good is cutting our carbon dioxide footprint domestically if we just turn around and ship that coal to someone else to burn? CO2 emitted into the atmosphere from one continent affects the whole globe.

If we can cut down on coal use here and then ramp up coal exports, we undermine our own progress on climate change. Whether the coal is burned in Utah or Uzbekistan makes little difference to rising sea levels -- which pose more of a threat to Metro Ports' headquarters, ironically, than to most places in California.

So by all means let's raise a glass to the DWP for weaning itself off coal. And let's remember that the battle for coal-conscious Angelenos isn't yet over. As long as local companies speculate in coal burning, coal exports, or coal mining, L.A. isn't coal-free.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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