NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — As the Obama administration weans the United States 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.
"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 United States 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, Md.
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 state and Oregon to evaluate and disclose such global fallout, saying that if the United States 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 United States 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."
Analyses suggest U.S. exports could be reducing by half or wiping out completely the pollution savings in the United States from switching power plants from coal to natural gas.