Audio Transcript:

Four little nuggets of news from around the country and the world this week have caught the attention of our environment editor here at The World, Peter Thomson.

The news items are datelined South Carolina, Seattle ,Beijing ,and Greenland.

They're all over the map, but they're connected in a very significant way.

Peter Thomson joins us now. What's that common denominator, Peter, and what do these stories add up to?

THOMSON: Well Marco, the thread that links all of these stories together is coal. The news from South Carolina is that one of the state's electric utilities announced yesterday that it will close two small coal-fired power plants as part of a shift toward relying more on natural gas and nuclear power to generate electricity.

Now by itself this isn't such a big deal—these are small power plants. But what's important is what they represent, and that's the beginning of shift in the U.S. away from using coal to generate electricity.

Coal is under pressure here from a couple of directions—from federal pollution regulations, which are rising, and natural gas prices, which are falling. Coal plants are even in trouble in the heart of coal country, places like Kentucky, where there was another significant announcement yesterday. That was that a utility there has decided not to update a big coal plant to meet new environmental standards, which almost certainly means that the plant will shut down. And that is a big slap in the face to coal.

WERMAN: OK, so in Seattle, what's going on there, and what does it have to do with coal?

THOMSON: Well here's the thing, Marco—coal use might be starting to fall off here in the U.S., but we still have the biggest reserves of the stuff in the world. So there's a big push now to increase coal exports. Producers in Wyoming and Montana want to open up new rail routes to the west coast and there are proposals to build six new export terminals to ship coal to Asia.

But there's a lot of resistance to this, and on Tuesday the Seattle city council passed a resolution opposing coal exports. And this is a fight that's picking up a lot of steam in the region and that we'll be hearing more about in coming months on The World.

WERMAN: Story number three you said was out of Beijing…

THOMSON: Yeah, you might've seen reports this morning that China is taking steps to boost its economy. And of course when you talk about boosting China's economy, you're talking about burning more coal. And that's bad news for the global environment, because China is already the largest current emitter of carbon dioxide pollution, which of course is the leading cause of climate change.

WERMAN: I'm beginning to see a pattern here. So that brings us to your last news item, and that's datelined Greenland.

THOMSON: Yeah, Greenland… one of the places around the Arctic where sensors have just recorded a new and highly symbolic level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—400 parts per million. Many climate scientists believe that the top level that will prevent serious and virtually permanent climate disruption is 350 parts per million, but the trend is strongly in the other direction. And coal is perhaps the primary culprit. So what happens in China, and the ports of the west coast, and South Carolina, will have a lot to do with whether that number keeps rising or eventually starts to fall…

WERMAN: The World's environment editor Peter Thomson. Thanks very much for tying up all these four datelines for us.

THOMSON: Thanks, Marco.