Locking in Coal, Locking Out Facts

While Washington debates climate change, coal mining in the West gets a pass

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For the past month, the klieg lights have been squarely focused on attempts inside the Beltway to cobble together compromise legislation to address global climate change (AKA the Waxman-Markey bill), and President Obama’s commitment at the G-8 summit to keep the planet from heating up more than two degrees celsius.

Meanwhile, out here in the West, it’s CO2-emitting business as usual, with the federal Bureau of Land Management this month proposing to lock in long term federal coal leases to giant mining firms. And not small amounts of coal either.

Specifically, at the same time the Obama administration is supporting targets to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by huge amounts over the next few decades, the BLM is proposing to extend the life of four coal mines in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. The "Wright Area coal lease applications" will approve leases granting mining companies permission to mine an additional 2.5 billion to 3.4 billion tons of coal over a 5-10 year period. When all that coal is combusted (and what else do you do with coal?), it will produce around 6 – 7 billion tons of CO2, or approximately the same amount as produced by all the commerical power plants in the US in a year.

And while coal-fired power plants aren’t going away any time soon, why does this administration have to go out of its way to make life easier for them?

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. BLM could say "no" to the coal lease applications expansions. It could approve smaller expansions. It could require the coal mines to mitigate the significant impacts of future greenhouse gas emissions by buying carbon offsets. Or buying land to help wildlife cope with the impacts of climate change.

But BLM is not thinking about any of those things. In fact, its environmental impact statement on the lease applications is a paragon of studied ignorance: BLM refuses to even estimate the CO2 emissions from the coal that will inevitably be burned after BLM permits it to be mined. It’s as if the agency is afraid to admit the tremendous global warming impacts its decisions are making possible.

Trying to gloss over the huge global warming impacts of locking in years of additional coal mining and coal burning won’t make the problem go away. If this administration wants to make a real dent in America’s contribution to climate change, it will have to take a hard, honest look at how the government itself is part of the problem. It’s not doing that in Wyoming. Yet.

To learn more about the Wright Area Coal lease Application draft environmental impact statement, go to www.blm.gov/wy/st/en/info/NEPA/HighPlains/Wright-Coal.html. To ask BLM to disclose the greenhouse gas emissions form burning coal mined in the lease applications, and to consider ways to mitigate the global warming impacts of such emissions, email Sarah Bucklin, Wyoming BLM at casper_wymail@blm.gov before August 25.

Ted was an attorney in the Rocky Mountain regional office from 2003–2018. He protected wilderness, roadless areas and the planet's climate on behalf of conservation groups in the Four Corners' states.