Government’s Support for the Fossil Fuel Contradicts Its Pledge to Reduce Global Warming Pollution
A shovel prepares to dump a load of coal into a 320-ton truck at the Black Thunder Mine in Wright, Wyoming, located within the state’s Powder River Basin. The administration has recently handed out several leases to develop coal in the basin. SOURCE: AP/Matthew Brown
by Tom Kenworthy
The disconnect between the Obama administration’s approach to managing federal coal resources in Wyoming and its rhetoric on climate change is growing. The administration needs to explain why it’s pledging to fight climate change on the one hand while on the other supporting the increased production of a resource that heavily contributes to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and mercury pollution. Further, the issues groups are raising in lawsuits challenging some Wyoming coal sales, including better assessments of the environmental impacts of coal leases, are ones the administration should take into consideration.
If Wyoming were a nation, it would be the third-largest coal-producing country in the world. In 2009 the state’s 20 mines produced 431 million tons of coal, or 40 percent of U.S. production, according to the most recent statistics published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
That huge and growing river of coal flows from Wyoming’s portion of the Powder River Basin—a West Virginia-sized region that sprawls across northeast Wyoming and southeast Montana and contains one of the world’s premier coal deposits. In the last two decades, coal production in the Powder River Basin jumped nearly two-and-a-half times thanks to lower production costs and lower sulfur content compared to coal in the eastern United States.
The federal government controls most of Wyoming’s coal, either because the coal underlies federal lands or because the government owns the subsurface mineral rights to coal deposits below private land.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration has opened the coal floodgates even further in service to an industry that is eager to ship Wyoming coal to Asian markets. It has done so even as it makes considerable progress in promoting renewable energy developments on public land and pledges a vigorous fight against climate change.
Two years ago, for example, President Obama’s Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar went to Copenhagen and delivered a keynote address to the U.N. Conference on Climate Change in which he said, “Carbon pollution is putting our world—and our way of life—in peril.”
Then, earlier this year, Secretary Salazar went to Wyoming to announce his department’s Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, was selling more than 2.3 billion tons of federal coal to coal companies, calling the dirty fossil fuel “a critical component of America’s comprehensive energy portfolio as well as Wyoming’s economy.”
Why, critics ask with good reason, is the administration pushing coal sales so hard even as it concedes in the environmental analyses for those sales that the combustion of Powder River Basin coal is responsible for almost 13 percent of total U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide, a prime global warming pollutant?