Decorative Coal Landscaping? Anyone?

Coal is mined for one reason:  to be burned.

It’s not used for decorative landscaping.  It’s not used for building material.  It’s certainly not used for jewelry.  Whether it’s for power (the primary use) or industrial purposes (steel, cement, etc.), the bottomline is, coal is mined to be burned.

So it was curious, if not utterly bizarre, to see the U.S. Interior Department’s latest response to concerns over the environmental impacts of authorizing more coal mining in northwestern Colorado.  That response?

“Combustion of the coal is too speculative.”

Too speculative.  In other words, according to the Interior Department, even though coal is mined for one reason and one reason alone–to be burned–it is too speculative to conclude that more coal mining will lead to more coal burning.

This has to be the most purposefully incompetent, willfully ignorant, and deliberately reckless responses to public concerns over coal burning.

And sadly, it gets worse.

The decision at issue is a new coal lease for Peabody Energy’s new Sage Creek coal mine in northwestern Colorado.  As I’ve blogged about before, Sage Creek is intended to fuel Xcel Energy’s nearby Hayden power plant.  Peabody is gunning for a federal coal lease to lock in the mine as a long-term source of coal for Hayden and potentially even for export to Europe.

Last fall, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the Interior Department agency charged with managing federal coal, proposed to auction off a new coal lease for Peabody to complete its Sage Creek mine.  Before doing so though, the agency had to analyze the environmental impacts of the new coal lease and solicit public input.

WildEarth Guardians responded.  And, of course, we called on the Bureau to address the fact that the coal from the Sage Creek mine would not only be burned in the nearby Hayden power plant, but fuel more coal-fired power plants in the U.S. and possibly abroad, leading more greenhouse gases and other harmful air pollution.

It goes without saying that more coal leasing means more coal mining, which of course means coal burning.  So, it also goes without saying that the Bureau of Land Management has a duty to address these impacts and perhaps temper its decision to better protect our health and the environment.

At least, that’s what we thought.

Because when the Bureau finally responded to our comments, it wasn’t a thoughtful analysis of environmental impacts or a meaningful effort to, perhaps, minimize the global warming impacts of its coal leasing decision.  No, it was this:

“Combustion of the coal is too speculative.”

Read for yourself on page 63 of their Environmental Assessment (or see the bottom of page 25).

The disconnection from reality is stunning.  Even Peabody has said coal from Sage Creek is intended to be a long-term fuel source for the Hayden coal-fired power plant, and has invested millions to make it happen and is locking in contracts as I write.

We know the U.S. Interior Department refuses to admit that its coal leasing and mining decisions have any greenhouse gas implications, but this latest claim–that combustion of Sage Creek coal is speculative–takes the cake.

This isn’t just an agency that’s avoiding responsibility, it’s an agency that’s demented.

Because if coal from the Sage Creek mine in Colorado isn’t burned, perhaps the Interior Department thinks it’s going to be used for decorative landscaping.  Or maybe building material.  Or maybe jewelry.

We can only hope.

In the meantime, that’s f-ing crazy.
Coal Mine

Coal mining…for decorative landscaping?

ClimateWest Podcast: Reaching out from the Rhetoric

Listen to the first ClimateWest podcast by WildEarth Guardians Climate and Energy Program Director, Jeremy Nichols.  Click below:

It’s unfortunate.  Apparently an anti-environmental front group called the Western Colorado Jobs Alliance, which apparently was founded by Jon Anderson, an attorney at Holland and Hart in Denver, is running ads like the one below in western Colorado newspapers:

I don’t even know where to begin with this ad, except to say, really?  Making money by closing off forests?

The reality, though, is that this front group’s ad campaign isn’t about stoking robust discussion about facts or reality, it’s about scaring people with made up stories.  These ones are borderline comedy and could almost be mistaken as an Onion article.  Despite the outlandishness, they have prompted some calls.

But what’s really heartening about all this is that WildEarth Guardians has received more positive feedback from folks in western Colorado in response to these ads.  It seems like every time one of these ads runs, we get more positive e-mails and phone calls from folks telling us to keep it up.  We’ve even gotten a few new members out of this.  Take this little bit of encouragement I recently received from someone in Delta County:

I thought I’d send a message as well-KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK! I don’t think for a minute that you are costing anyone any jobs, but you are obviously causing some wingnut discomfort, so in my book you must be doing something right.

But while you just have to shake your head at how low some attorneys can get, I say why not take advantage of the opportunity to reach out to folks.  Like the guy who called me today (the nice one).

Look, I’m not on a mission to convince everyone that I’m somehow right.  I’d just like to at least take the opportunity to try to convince some folks that I’m someone who cares about things just like they do.  We may disagree on the best way to protect our clean air, water, wildlife, or even disagree about our energy future, but can’t we at least put rhetoric aside for a minute and actually talk about how to solve problems?   The way I see it, at least we could have enough respect for each other as human beings that we could actually have a reasonable discussion.

We’ll see how things shake out.

In the meantime, this latest ad has to be one of the most confusing given that the timber industry in Colorado just got a massive break.  Several companies were recently allowed to simply walk away from unprofitable timber contracts with the Forest Service.  The reason?  The Forest Service wants to make it easier for them to log in Colorado.

Of course, this raises all sorts of questions–like is it smart to throw so much taxpayer money away for the timber industry, or will letting logging companies out of their contracts actually do anything to boost their bottomline, or will logging even have an impact on the beetle infestation in Colorado?  But these are questions for another blog altogether.

Suffice to say, I don’t think “radical environmentalists” are much of a problem for the timber industry or Colorado’s forests.

Clean Air to be Protected from Drilling

At long last, the EPA rolled out its proposed rules to curb air pollution from oil and gas drilling nationwide, promising major improvements for public health, the environment, and major progress toward protecting the climate.

In a few words, they’re a drastic improvement and a major milestone.  Check out the highlights:

  • The proposed rules would generate a net savings of $30 million annually due to increased recovery of methane, otherwise known as natural gas.  In other words, the rules would not only cost nothing to implement, but they would actually make money.
  • The proposed rules would reduce volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions by 540,000 tons, an industry-wide reduction of 25%.  VOCs react with sunlight to form ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of smog and contain other toxic compounds.
  • The proposed rules would reduce methane emissions by 3.4 million tons, which is equal to 65 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, a reduction of about 26%.   This will be like eliminating the carbon dioxide emissions of 15 coal-fired power plants.  That is huge progress for the climate.
  • The proposed rules would reduce toxic air pollutants, such as benzene, a known carcinogen, by 38,000 tons, a 30% reduction.

The rules are long time coming and actually only came about after WildEarth Guardians and the San Juan Citizens Alliance, represented by Earthjustice, filed suit over the EPA’s failure to review and update these rules as required by the Clean Air Act (you can read the full 600 page set of proposed rules here, enjoy!).

You see, federal regulations set an important floor for environmental protection in this country.  States, who implement the Clean Air Act, have to ensure their safeguards are as strong federal rules.  In this case, rules limiting air pollution from the oil and gas industry were last adopted as far as back as 1985.

The latest proposal is sorely needed and promises to raise the floor of federal protection considerably from Wyoming to West Virginia and everywhere in between.  The proposed rules not only strengthen limits on toxic air pollution, but ensure that the hydraulic fracturing of wells–which is a major source of VOC emissions–is fully regulated.

There are shortcomings.  The rules do not explicitly regulate methane, a potent greenhouse gas.  WildEarth Guardians and others estimated that a full suite of methane controls could save more than $1 billion annually.  Still, even with the VOC controls, the rules would reduce methane emissions by more than 20% from the oil and gas sector, which itself is the largest source of methane in the United States.  That’s amazing news for the climate.

And of course, let’s be clear that cleaner natural gas is not the solution to our nation’s energy needs.  However, if we start to make progress toward exposing the clean air impacts of drilling and to at least hold industry accountable to protecting our health and well-being, we can make some major strides to ensure renewable energy and other cleaner sources of energy comes out ahead as the most desirable solution.

In the meantime, we can all start to breathe a lot more easily.  The EPA really did its job on this one and for that, I’d like to extend a big thanks.

Check out the video we put out when reached our settlement with the EPA.  Our hopes came true, they came through for clean air!