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Rocky Mountain Coal Takes Lumps, But Not Many

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View Ted Zukoski's blog posts
18 August 2010, 9:48 AM
Even when it seems King Coal loses, does the environment win?
A coal mine methane well carved into national forest land, Colorado. Ted Zukoski photo.

Headlines in the last week trumpeted a decision by Xcel, Colorado's largest utility, to convert several old coal-fired power plants into natural gas plants.

The decision was hailed by some as a victory for the environment, since natural gas, when burned, results in fewer pollutants and greenhouse gases.  Some proclaimed the political power of coal on the wane in the West and natural gas ascendent.

That's the soundbite.  The real story is more complicated. First, before we all run to embrace natural gas as the savior for clean air and a less warm climate, let's remember what natural gas is doing to our lands.

The Piceance Basin in western Colorado, once populated mainly by ranchers, wild horses and mule deer, is now a messy hub for natural gas activity, rife with compressor stations, pipelines, roads and traffic.  There's a road up every draw and on top of every ridge.  Well pads dot the landscape like chicken pox.  Private lands in Pennsylvania and New York may soon be similarly afflicted.  In short, natural gas production is not without its downsides.

Second, coal may have lost one round with Xcel, but it's still booming.  And Obama's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is doing little to lessen the climate change costs of mining.

BLM recently set the stage for approving 3.9 billion tons of coal leases in Wyoming's Powder River Basin.  Burning that publicly owned coal over a several-year period will result in up to 8 billion tons of CO2 emissions - about as much greenhouse gas emissions as produced by the entire U.S. economy in a single year.  Yet, BLM refused to even look at how it might require the coal companies - who will reap huge windfalls from selling a taxpayer-owned product that will poison the planet - to mitigate climate change impacts. 

It's a stunning abdication of responsibility that flies in the face of Interior Sec. Ken Salazar's statement that Interior, and BLM, "is taking the lead" in addressing climate change's impacts to, and from, public lands.

It also appears that no good deed goes unpunished. One of the coal-fired power plants Xcel previously agreed to close is in Cameo, Colorado.  The mine that feeds that plant, known as the McClane Canyon Mine, will stop delivering coal to Cameo at the end of this year.  But rather than lead to less coal in the pipeline (and fewer greenhouse gases), closing the Cameo plant has caused the McClane Canyon Mine owners to look for other coal buyers.

To reach new markets, McClane will have to transport the coal by rail, requiring building new facilities.  To pay for these new facilities, McClane is proposing to double its coal production.  So the result of closing the Cameo plant may be more coal on the market, more coal up the smokestack, and more climate change.  You can't win for losing in this business.

Finally, coal's power comes from coal's money, of which there's still quite a bit.  Just ask Bill Koch, owner of Oxbow Mining with mines in Colorado and elsewhere.

Koch, one of the world's 500 richest men, is the biggest personal donor to Colorado Rep. John Salazar, brother of Sec. Salazar.  So when Mr. Koch wanted to turn Interior Department lands near his home into his private playground, he asked Colorado pols, including Rep. Salazar for help.  And he got it.  The proposed land swap may benefit Dinosaur National Park, but it has local BLM staff - and some conservationists - fuming.

Koch's proposed deal is just a reminder that big coal (and its money) still seems to get what big coal wants.


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Does Natural Gas emit fewer air pollutants and greenhouse gases? Food for thought:

I'm not sure where this writer is getting his facts.

I lived in Piceance Creek when I was a little girl. My father worked at the compressor station there. At that time there were little roads leading up all the valleys and on the mountains. Gas wells, pipelines, and gas plants have been in that area for over 50 years, I'm 46 years old. Granted, there are more now, but this activity isn't new to the area. I actually worked at a gas plant in Piceance Creek in 2008. Wildlife was still abundant.

Additionally, the Cameo mine is closed and has been closed for at least 5 years now. The mine closed because it was no longer economically beneficial to mine. When my dad was a little boy, he's 68 now, his family used to go to the coal mine to get coal to heat their home. The power plant now gets it coal from other sources.

Thanks for your comment.

My facts re: the Piceance are based on my drives through the area in the past ten years. Yes, there has been oil and gas activity in the area previously. But, in my experience, the level of activity has exploded in the last decade.

And the folks at the Colorado Wildlife Federation certainly think that natural gas development could threaten mule deer and sage grouse populations in the Piceance. See their 2009 report - That report, looking to the future, concludes: "one cannot avoid a conclusion that fragmentation of northwest Colorado’s rich wildlife habitat, and the harms and demonstrable risks of such fragmentation, will continue as roads and infrastructure emerge on many of the leased parcels that have not been developed yet."

Second, my comments were about the McClane Canyon coal mine, which is still in production (mining 260,000 tons of coal in 2009 - see, not the Cameo mine. the McClane Canyon mine is located in the Book Cliffs, and has been supplying coal to the power plant at Cameo for a number of years. It's the McClane Canyon mine - not the Cameo mine - that I was writing about.

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Ken Salazar's statement that you quote from has expired or been superseded, according to the link.

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