As US gas consumption plateaus to help climate, fuel exports pollute elsewhere in the world

Energy Associated Press

As the Obama administration makes headway at home in the fight against global warming, it has helped stoke record exports of fossil fuels that are contributing to rising levels of pollution elsewhere.

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U.S. exports of diesel and gasoline have doubled since President Barack Obama took office, and the carbon embedded in them has meet political goals by taking it off America's pollution balance sheet. But that does not necessarily help the planet.

The U.S. is sending more fuel than ever to other parts of the world, where efforts to address resulting pollution are just getting underway, if advancing at all.

Under Obama, the U.S. has reduced more carbon pollution from energy than any other nation, about 475 million tons between 2008 and 2013, according to U.S. Energy Department data. Less than one-fifth of that amount came from burning less gasoline and diesel.

Despite these efforts, pollution linked to global warming is rising worldwide.

U.S. exports of gasoline and diesel more than made up for the savings at home in pollution abroad, according to an analysis by The Associated Press. Those exports released roughly 1 billion tons of carbon pollution into the atmosphere elsewhere during the same period.

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In Panama, imports of diesel and gasoline from the U.S. have nearly quadrupled since 2008.

Panama is the largest recipient of diesel fuel dirtier and more carbon-laden than would be allowed in engines in the U.S., and the fuel is used in cars and trucks that do not have the same efficiency standards and are not regularly inspected and maintained, the AP's investigation found.

Panama's requirement that drivers test emissions, including for carbon dioxide, are almost completely ignored.

"It's a false image," said Onel Masardule of the Indigenous People's Biocultural Climate Change Assessment Initiative, a Peru-based environmental group. "In reality, the U.S is still contaminating."

The fossil fuel trade has soared under Obama as he has overseen a domestic boom in oil and natural gas production and ordered the biggest increases in fuel economy in history.

The boom has helped the U.S. reduce oil imports, create jobs, boost exports and shrink the trade deficit.

But for global warming, fuel exports mean that, at the very least, the administration is making a smaller dent than it claims.

"This is their hidden success story that they would like to keep hidden," said Kevin Book, a Washington-based energy analyst and a member of the National Petroleum Council, a federal advisory group in the U.S.

"It has done a lot to improve our balance of trade standing, but it is not the most climate-friendly way to do it. There is no way to avoid that there is a bigger emissions impact when you have more to combust," Book said.

There is no clear accounting of what America's growth as a fossil-fuel powerhouse is doing to the global-warming picture. U.S. projects that increase energy exports could be considered, such as huge terminals planned for the West Coast to send more coal abroad for power plants. Trade agreements could factor in the implications of energy trade on global warming. But no trade pacts negotiated by the White House mention it.

The White House said it is working to strengthen environmental provisions in trade agreements and lower tariffs on technologies that ultimately will reduce emissions abroad.

It also says that exports do not add more carbon to the atmosphere because they replace fuel that would come from someplace else.

Other experts dispute that. They note that when energy is plentiful and reasonably priced, as is the case with American oil, it tends to increase demand.

Panama long been an important player in the global energy trade because of the Panama Canal. It soon will be a bigger conduit when a $5.2 billion, third set of locks is completed next year allowing tankers full of U.S. liquefied natural gas and, potentially, crude oil to transit. The country also is expanding trade zones which allow for duty-free imports and export of gasoline and diesel.

Still, Panama says it contributes no carbon dioxide to the atmosphere because its sizable forests absorb more carbon than it releases from vehicle tailpipes and deforestation. Forests owned by the Guna people in the northeast parts of the country, are some of the most pristine and help Panama reduce carbon pollution naturally.

Those forests are being eyed for carbon credits, a system by which countries or companies reduce their carbon footprints by paying to ensure forests are protected.

The Guna are skeptical. They say forests are sacred sanctuaries that shouldn't come with a price.

"When we speak about trees, we talk about our brothers and sisters," said Jorge Andreve, director for Panama's environmental agency in the Guna Yala region. "You can't put a T-shirt with a dollar sign on a tree, when you don't own that tree."

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Contact the AP's Washington investigative team at DCinvestigations@ap.org