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What War On Coal?

In his State of the Union address, President Obama said some stirring things about climate change. Most dramatically, he urged Congress to take action and then said:

But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.

Well, if you want to act on climate change to protect future generations, Mr. President, I have a modest proposal: stop rubber-stamping coal mine expansions on federal lands in the western U.S.

Some have decried Mr. Obama’s supposed "war on coal," pointing to EPA’s regulation of air and climate change pollutants from power-plants. Friends of coal also hate the administration’s half-steps to address the devastating practice of coal mining known as mountaintop removal—where coal companies scrape off a ridge and dump it into a stream to get at the coal seam.

But if there’s a war on coal in the western U.S., coal has been winning. That’s because when it comes to western coal mines, the Obama administration has been working mostly FOR coal, and not so much against climate change.

The manager of federal minerals in the West, the Bureau of Land Management, has been happy to OK just about every proposal to mine coal in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. In some cases, BLM’s rubber-stamp will keep the mines open and the coal flowing for another two decades.

We’re talking billions of tons of coal. Virtually all efforts in court and out to get the Obama administration to assess and limit the climate change pollution from federally mined coal have been stonewalled by the president’s underlings at BLM.

And there’s no sign that this will change anytime soon. Let’s look at what the Obama administration has gifted the coal industry in just one state (Colorado) in just the last 60 days:

  • BLM approved a proposal by industry giant Arch Coal for a 3-square-mile expansion of the West Elk coal mine into roadless National Forest lands right next to a wilderness area in west-central Colorado (which I’ve written about obsessively here, here, and here). It would yield 20 million tons of coal.
  • BLM and the Forest Service proposed to approve another 3-square-mile expansion of the nearby Bowie mine, which would net 9 million tons of coal.
  • BLM approved a 5-square-mile expansion of the Deserado Mine in northwest Colorado, predicted to yield 20 million tons of coal. This mine feeds a power plant that contributes to dirty air in the polluted Uintah Basin.
  • BLM proposed to allow two companies to explore a 16,000-acre area south of Colorado Springs in preparation for more coal mining there.
  • BLM proposed a new management plan for public lands around Grand Junction that would result in 5- to 8-fold increase in climate change pollution from BLM-permitted activities. BLM frankly admits that, "Coal mining activities are predicted to be the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions" from its actions in the area.

All of these decisions and new proposals to let coal companies have their way were made after the election, after President Obama’s speech on election night, post-superstorm Sandy, when he reaffirmed that he would tackle climate change.

It's true that the administration has not waved the white flag in every western coal mine fight. BLM agreed last year to take a new look at the controversial Coal Hollow strip mine on the doorstep of Bryce Canyon National Park. But the impact of that delay was muted, since part of that mine is on private land where federal land management agencies have little authority. So coal is already being ripped out of the ground there.

Even if the U.S. could make a fast transition to renewable energy source, coal will be around for a while.

Still, "protecting future generations" from climate change could start now, here in the West, by stopping coal mines in special places like roadless areas and proposed wilderness.

By limiting damaging, uncontrolled methane emissions into the atmosphere.

And by saying 'no' to coal mine expansions that needlessly worsen climate change once in a while.

Here's hoping deeds will someday match soaring words.