Rocky Mountain Coal Takes Lumps, But Not Many

Even when it seems King Coal loses, does the environment win?

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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.


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.