Workers Use Pumps To Extract And Recycle Oil From Cargo Ships

A Rolling Stone article has been getting much attention for suggesting that as domestic fossil fuels markets for products like coal and petroleum coke diminish, companies increasingly seek overseas markets – often aided by US government offices – much like tobacco companies pushed their product overseas a couple decades ago.

“Even as our nation is pivoting toward a more sustainable energy future, America’s oil and coal corporations are racing to position the country as the planet’s dirty-energy dealer – supplying the developing world with cut-rate, high-polluting, climate-damaging fuels. Much like tobacco companies did in the 1990s – when new taxes, regulations and rising consumer awareness undercut domestic demand – Big Carbon is turning to lucrative new markets in booming Asian economies where regulations are looser. Worse, the White House has quietly championed this dirty-energy trade.” – Rolling Stone

This is a loose comparison in that tobacco is a non-essential product that clearly damages public health, while cheap energy presents myriad benefits for billions of people in the developing world without electricity. Greenhouse gas emissions associated with burning coal can arguably be managed and/or mitigated, but the same cannot be said for traditional tobacco products. Direct links between access to electricity and quality of life improvements have been shown and there are hundreds of UN-, NGO- and government-sponsored programs to illuminate Sub-Saharan Africa and developing Asia.

“Without electricity, water cannot be desalinized or circulated, refrigeration is not feasible, temperature-sensitive vaccines cannot be stored, controlled irrigation for agriculture is not practical, communication is limited, tourism is not attractive, and factories can’t operate competitively,” Dan Gregory, former chairman of Green Energy Corp. wrote in a white paper describing the Global Energy Model. – Breaking Energy

This is clearly not the case with tobacco.

With regard to government support for external trade, there is a moral question here, but it again seems the link between pushing tobacco on Indonesian children and facilitating the sale of cheap power generation fuel – even dirty coal – is a bit of a stretch.

The New York Times Dot Earth’s Andrew Revkin frames the moral issue underlying this shifting energy business trend:

“My question is, if we can’t get it right with tobacco, where there’s no benefit to weigh against the toll in lives and costs, how can we get it right with fossil fuels, where the real-time benefits of affordable energy seem always to trump the long-term risks from climate change?”

This environmental political issue has been grappled with for years: Should the developing world first get rich, or get green? The developed world traveled the former course – though climate change was not yet understood – nevertheless, developing world leaders often take offense when rich countries tell them not to provide power to billions of their citizens with coal, even though in many cases it’s the quickest, cheapest option.