Interior Department: Carbon Costs “Misleading”

In July, the Obama Administration was called out over its utter hypocrisy in curtailing carbon pollution in the U.S.

On the one hand, the Administration says that delaying carbon clean up will cost us billions.  On the other, the U.S. Department of Interior, head by Secretary Sally Jewell, is selling millions of tons of coal in the American West and not only refusing to account for carbon costs, but defending their decisions in spite of the climate impacts.

Thankfully, we’re making some progress in reining in the Department’s unwillingness to share in the responsibility to combat climate change.

Just yesterday, a federal judge overturned a coal leasing decision in Colorado over the agency’s failure to assess the social cost of carbon emissions associated with the leasing.  The order comes on the heels of a June ruling where the court held Interior illegally refused to use the “social cost of carbon” protocol, an interagency method of assessing the cost of carbon emissions, when analyzing the environmental and economic impacts of leasing more coal.  The judge was especially perturbed that the agency touted the supposed economic benefits of more mining while completely downplaying (actually, outright denying) the climate costs, which the court noted could be as high as $1 billion (as the court observed, “in effect the agency prepared half of a cost-benefit analysis”).

Cognitive dissonance doesn’t even begin to explain the disconnect here.  What the Interior Department is doing is completely (and literally) undermining our efforts to combat climate change.  Even as President Obama empowers the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reduce greenhouse gases, Sally Jewell’s coal decisions are unleashing massive amounts of carbon.

Either President Obama isn’t really serious about curtailing carbon or the Department of Interior is completely out of line.  It doesn’t take a genius to know where the problem lies.

The federal coal leasing program has been called the “elephant in the room” that, unbelievably, has yet to be noticed.  Yet all indications are that Interior is well aware that coal leasing is detrimental to our climate.  What’s worse, everything indicates that they are deliberately turning their backs on the issue, going so far as to continue denying carbon costs.

Case in point, on August 15, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management approved 15.75 million tons of new coal mining in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming.  Coal is mined for one reason, to be burned, and when burned, this coal stands to unleash 26 million metric tons of carbon pollution (in case there’s any question about the significance of this amount, it equals the annual carbon emissions of 5.4 million cars according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s handy carbon calculator).

So what did the agency have to say about the cost of these carbon emissions?  Complete denial.

In fact, in response to concerns over carbon costs, Interior not only argued that the social cost of carbon protocol is inappropriate for assessing the impacts of coal leasing (an assertion rejected by the federal court in Colorado), but argued that such an analysis would be “unbalanced” and “misleading” (see their decision at bottom of page 2 to page 3).

It gets worse.  For instance, while the Department argued that they are not required to do a cost-benefit analysis, and therefore not obligated to assess carbon costs, they actually did prepare a cost-benefit analysis that again, only touted the purported economic benefits of mining.  In the underlying Environmental Impact Statement for the lease, they estimated hundreds of millions increased revenue and dozens of new jobs (see Environmental Impact Statement at p. 3-160).  In other words, they put together the same “half of a cost benefit analysis” overturned by the federal court in Colorado.

Adding absurdity to the mix, they assert that the social cost of carbon impacts would be “negligible” when compared to the costs of carbon from coal nationwide or globally.  Of course, no actual analysis was completed to support this “negligible” claim and, not surprisingly, they didn’t take such a big picture view when assessing the supposed benefits of more coal mining (after all, using Interior’s logic, wouldn’t the addition of dozens of jobs be “negligible” when compared to all the jobs provided by other industries nationwide or globally?).

To underscore the absurdity, assuming the 26 million metric tons of carbon is produced in 2015, this would lead to costs as low as $260 million and as high as $2.8 billion (for 2015, estimated carbon costs range from $11 per metric ton to $109, depending on the discount rate).  Put another way, Interior is actually claiming that a cost of $2.8 billion is negligible.

Topping it all off, the agency continued to stand by its claim that, “The tools necessary to quantify climatic impacts from projects such as a lease modification are presently unavailable” (see Environmental Assessment at p. 27).  Yet the federal court in Colorado affirmed that there is a tool, the social cost of carbon protocol (see ruling at p. 17).

Why would Interior argue such deceit?  It’s unclear, but the only reason for the agency to describe a social cost of carbon analysis as “unbalanced” and “misleading” is because it would show that the cost of leasing coal isn’t worth it.

Ultimately, the Department of Interior is either one of America’s most dangerous climate deniers or the they’re truly of the mind that they must lease coal at any cost.  Either way, it’s clear that the agency has no intention of stepping up to address the carbon impacts of coal leasing.

To put it bluntly, the U.S. Interior Department isn’t ignoring the elephant in the room, they’re simply trying to hide it.

We’re making progress in cutting carbon, but so long as Sally Jewell and the Department of Interior keep flouting our nation’s commitment to safeguarding the climate, it’s clear we can never fully succeed.

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Saving our climate is as easy as keeping carbon underground, something the U.S. Interior Department has yet to embrace.

Your Land is Fracked: The Untold Story of Drilling on Our Public Lands

Note: Tim Ream is WildEarth Guardians’ new Climate and Energy Campaign Director. He’ll be joining me in blogging here from time to time.  Enjoy his first post!  — Jeremy Nichols

I’ve spent a whole lot of days and nights in my life enjoying the beautiful public lands we have been blessed with across this nation. I’ve experienced the awe of waking in subalpine forests covered in new snow, incredible morning birdsong along desert riverbanks, and the diverse life and landscapes of myriad other wonderful places on our National Forests and on lands managed for us by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Still, my first night out with WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program Director, Jeremy Nichols, was brand new to me. We set camp in a coal-bed methane drilling field that was unlike anything I had ever seen on public lands.

Think of your favorite wild place and then imagine one of these plopped in every direction.

Think of your favorite wild place and then imagine one of these plopped in every direction.

I had just started my first week as Guardians’ new Climate and Energy Campaign Director and Jeremy decided I needed some intimate acquaintance with the land it was now my job to protect. Guardians’ vision is that our U.S. public lands should be completely free of fossil fuel development. After all, more than one in three Americans rely on public lands as a source of their drinking water. If you travel just about anywhere in this country, you surely drink water that originates on our public lands. The last thing any of us want is to have our families contaminated by chemical concoctions used to frack for oil and gas – often secret chemical combinations that companies refuse to identify to doctors or researchers.

 

Well pads don't just make your public lands hike ugly, they can kill you.

Well pads don’t just make your hike on public lands look ugly, they can kill you.

Along with clean water, we expect our National Forests and other public lands to be sources of clean air. Just the opposite is happening in many rural communities near frack jobs on our public lands. Rural communities in Utah and Colorado have already been federally declared as unhealthy air zones with fracking, oil and gas transport, and oil and gas processing the culprit for excessive smog. Air monitors in rural regions in some other Western states, otherwise free from industrial sources or heavy traffic except for oil and gas production, are also beginning to ring alarms over their decline in clean air. I personally had a hard time breathing in the worst of the areas we visited.

Great open spaces aren't so great when tracking invades.

Great open spaces aren’t so great when fracking invades.

But even if public lands oil and gas could be magically fracked (and nearly all oil and gas produced in this country nowadays is fracked) in some pristine way that didn’t pollute our air and drinking water, we’d still have to fight it. That’s because just about every serious scientist who has weighed in on global warming policy prescriptions agrees that the bulk of the fossil fuel left in the world has to be kept in the ground.

The simple truth is most fossil fuels must be left in the ground or we risk runaway global warming.

The simple truth is most fossil fuels must be left in the ground or we risk runaway global warming.

So, how are we going to lockdown hundreds of billions of dollars of fossil fuel that every greedy oilman and gas developer in the world wants to get their paws on? The same way we have created large open spaces free from industrial or residential development; the same way we have preserved landscapes big enough for bison and wolves; the same way we have kept forests uncut for miles in every direction. Our precious public lands, and the fossil fuels found under them don’t belong to the federal government. They belong to us; they’re our birthright as citizens. The government only manages them at our direction. Those are our fossil fuels. That’s our carbon. And the way I read the polls, most Americans don’t want that carbon burned up into our atmosphere, speeding the pace to an unlivable world of runaway global warming for our kids and grandkids.

The biggest most protected landscapes in our country are all on our public lands because that is where we the people have the most influence to protect them. So it only makes sense that the place we will have the most influence in locking down the first extensive sources of carbon, and thereby turning the tide on climate change, is on public lands that hold publicly-owned carbon. We have to keep the oil and gas and coal industries from burning our carbon and destroying our climate. And as the greatest historical climate polluter, it only makes sense that the U.S. has the responsibility to lead on this carbon lockdown issue by locking down our public lands fossil fuels first.

Your public lands or just another cash cow for Big Oil and Gas?

Your public lands or just another cash cow for Big Oil and Gas?

With that as our mission, Jeremy took me out for a tour of what we are up against, specifically focusing on oil and gas. It isn’t pretty. We did an 1800-mile loop from Denver up through southern Wyoming, through Utah’s Uinta Basin, down to northwestern New Mexico and then back to Colorado. Despite the distance, we still only saw a tiny fraction of public lands oil and gas drilling. In fact, the U.S. currently has more than 32 million acres under lease. That is an area of public lands fossil fuel development leasing bigger than the size of New York State. Thankfully, not all of it is being developed at this time, but that is only because oil and gas companies bid on and then hold these leased public lands in speculation. One of Guardians’ goals is to stop this lease speculation on public lands by Big Oil and Gas.

Checkerboard land ownership can put public lands fracking right next to farms and ranches.

Checkerboard land ownership can put public lands fracking right next to farms and ranches.

Despite lease speculation, the amount of active development is still huge. About 25% of fossil fuels burned in this country come from public lands, those are fossil fuels that you own. Think about that: the overwhelming majority of Americans–heck, even a majority of Republicans–have told pollster after pollster that we want the government to do more to stop global warming, but what the Obama Administration is doing instead is selling off the public’s fossil fuels to speed the rate of global warming. Sarah Palin’s “drill baby, drill” turned into Barack Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy and the result is undoing all other government efforts taken to stop global warming combined.

Obama's "all of the above" energy strategy is making global warming worse.

Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy is making global warming worse.

Jeremy and I traveled landscape after landscape riddled with gas wells, pump jacks, pipelines and processing plants. We saw hundreds of miles of new roads built across vast, previously unroaded landscapes, with the sole purpose to let Big Oil and Gas pull money out of the ground. There are huge sections of public lands that have an oil well pad every quarter of a mile in every direction for hundreds of square miles. Where there are gaps, projects are proposed to fill in the blank spaces. These well pads are eyesores, dangerous, and dominate the landscape. You can’t hunt near gas tanks. You won’t picnic next to toxic industrial facilities. And you don’t camp in well fields, maybe with the exception of Jeremy and me on a mission. For all intents and purposes, we haven’t just sold Big Oil and Gas our fossil fuels, we have given away our birthright of public land.

It has to stop. Now.

Picnic anywhere you like, but please keep the kids and pets out of the toxic waste.

Picnic anywhere you like, but please keep the kids and pets out of the toxic waste.

On these pages, Jeremy has been describing what Guardians has been doing to fight coal, oil, and gas development project by project throughout the West. We are going to step up that work, with an added focus on oil and gas. We will expand on recent court wins and we have a few novel legal approaches to help us take back our lands.

In addition, we have a bigger vision. What if the young and growing climate movement, the mature and experienced public lands movement, and the fiery and surging anti-fracking movement all joined forces to shut down one-third of all oil and gas fracking in one fell swoop? Guardians is hoping to catalyze this three-way movement marriage into the biggest threat the U.S. fossil fuel industry has ever faced. Taking back our carbon on our lands is a winnable fight and would be an incredibly powerful step turning the U.S. into a leader in addressing climate change.

Stay tuned to these pages.

And of course, you can help. Please support our work in protecting our drinking water, our air, and our climate by joining WildEarth Guardians and lending your support to kicking the fossil fuel industry off our public lands for good. Become a member or make a donation today.

I look forward to working with you on this incredibly important campaign. Check out more photos of our public lands fracking tour here. And thank you for your support.

Tim Ream

Climate and Energy Campaign Director

The author is unhappy with oil and gas drilling on public lands.

The author is unhappy with oil and gas drilling on public lands.

Floating with the Coal Trains on the Colorado River

It’s always an amazing experience floating the Upper Colorado River in the summertime.  It’s not a completely wild river, but it’s remote enough, free enough, and undisturbed enough that it makes for an incredible float, whether just for a day or for several.

But it’s kind of an odd float as well.  Here, beautiful mountains, vibrant river life, and awe-inspiring river flows contrast starkly with Colorado’s main east-west railroad line, which, among other things, carries miles of coal trains on a daily basis.

These trains haul millions of tons of coal from western Colorado and central Utah mines to power plants in the Midwest, southeast, and possibly even for export from the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s a crazy juxtaposition.  Here you have a river that is more threatened than ever because of climate change (one article characterized the threat as, “Nearly every climate change model puts a red bulls-eye on the Colorado River Basin”).  And right on its banks passing by en masse is the very carbon conduit fueling the climate change.

It’s a reminder of the hard work ahead of us in saving the American West from climate change.  For now, we make the best of it and whenever a coal train comes by, we wave to the engineer who gladly blows his train horn as he rumbles past.

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Coal train rumbles past rafters. 

 

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Coal train rumbling up the river, nearing Red Gore Canyon. 

 

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There’s something about a train, even if it’s monstrous noises completely disrupt the serenity of being on the river.

 

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Union Pacific locomotives proudly haul over a hundred coal cars at a time.

 

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 Our happy boat hoping for a future without carbon pollution and global warming.  We are, too.

Time for EPA to Come Clean on Methane

It’s only Wednesday and it’s already been a busy week on the issue of methane, a  greenhouse gas that’s like carbon on steroids and is released extensively in the production of fossil fuels:

  • There’s been ongoing coverage of our court victory last Friday overturning Arch Coal’s plans to expand its West Elk mine and in the process vent massive amounts of methane.  That ruling invalidated a U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management approval of Arch’s plans on the basis that the costs of carbon pollution, including the costs of venting methane gas, were ignored, a big victory for the climate.
  • And this week, a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that newer gas wells being drilled into Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale are leaking more methane than wells drilled into other formations.  The study has major implications for shale oil and gas drilling and fracking across the nation, which is fast taking hold as the predominant form of oil and gas development.  Indeed, we just commented this week on the Bureau of Land Management’s plans to allow 5,000 wells to be drilled into the Niobrara shale formation of eastern Wyoming.

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Methane venting well at Arch Coal’s West Elk mine in western Colorado (click to see more pictures of what methane venting at coal mines looks like, including this video of methane venting in action)

There’s a lot going on around methane, but what’s disturbingly not being discussed is how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (and apparently other federal agencies, for that matter) are downplaying, if not covering up, the climate impacts of methane emissions.

Certainly, everybody recognizes that methane is a potent greenhouse gas, but what seems to be obfuscated is exactly how potent it is.

The measure of a greenhouse gases potency is also called its global warming potential.  In the case of methane, the Environmental Protection Agency has for many years universally presumed a global warming potential of 21, meaning that for one part of methane equals 21 parts of carbon dioxide.  But studies are consistently confirming that this estimate is too low, particularly when assessing the short-term climate impacts of methane emissions.

In fact, while studies are finding that over a 100-year period, the global warming potential of methane is more than 30 times that of carbon dioxide, they’re finding that in the short-term, methane may be as much as 105 times more potent than carbon as a greenhouse gas.

More recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (often referred to as the IPCC), probably the most authoritative (even if somewhat cautious) scientific body that is synthesizing climate information for policymakers and the public, reported methane global warming potentials under two scenarios:  the first, where climate carbon feedback is not accounted for the second, where it is.  The climate-carbon feedback factor refers to the fact that as carbon creates more warming, more greenhouse gas emissions are released.  For example, as permafrost melts, more methane is released from Arctic tundra.

Taking into account climate-carbon feedback (which is more reasonable and accurate given the very real feedback impacts of greenhouse gas-fueled warming), the IPCC reported in their most recent synthesis of climate science that methane’s global warming potential is 34 over a 100-year period and 86 over a 20-year period (you can download their report at climatechange2013.org at p. 714).  Below is the table showing the IPCC’s reported global warming potentials.

Global Warming Potential Over 20 Years Over 100 Years
Without Climate-Carbon Feedback

28

84

With Climate-Carbon Feedback

34

86

In spite of these findings, the Environmental Protection Agency continues to assume that methane’s potency is only 21 times that of carbon dioxide.

For instance, in the agency’s latest inventory of greenhouse gas emissions and sinks in the United States, which was released in April and presents 2012 data, they rely on a global warming potential of 21 (see their Executive Summary at p. ES-3).  In doing so, they report that coal mines and oil and gas operations (the fourth and first largest sources of methane in the U.S., respectively) release the equivalent of 222 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (total of 10.57 million metric tons of methane).

Yet, based on a global warming potential of 86, total carbon dioxide emissions due to methane from coal mines and oil and gas operations is actually more than 900 million metric tons, a more than four-fold difference.  

The table below shows the differences between EPA’s estimate of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from coal mines and oil and gas operations, based on the outdated global warming potential of 21,  and estimates based on the IPCC’s global warming potential factors.

Methane and carbon dioxide equivalent emissions (in million metric tons) from oil and gas operations and coal mines, based on EPA’s 2012 inventory of greenhouse gas emissions and sinks, released in April 2014, and IPCC global warming potential factors.

methane and co2e emissions

What this shows is that the climate impacts of methane are being significantly underestimated, in turn giving the impression that methane emissions from coal mines and oil and gas sources are not significant sources of carbon.  In fact, just based on methane along, this data shows that oil and gas and coal mines are the fourth and fifth largest sources of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S., right behind power plants, transportation, and industrial fossil fuel combustion.

Certainly, the Environmental Protection Agency has not outright discounted the significance of methane emissions from oil and gas operations, but they have refused to acknowledge that methane from coal mines is worthy of any agency attention.

And although the agency last fall officially raised the global warming potential of methane from 21 to 25, this is a far cry from reflecting the real short-term climate impacts of unchecked methane emissions.  Furthermore, in doing so, the agency rejected establishing a global warming potential based on a 20-year timeframe, essentially turning its back on the fact that methane’s climate impacts are more significant over the short-term, rather than the long-term.

By downplaying the climate impacts of methane, the Environmental Protection Agency is undermining the urgency that should be driving efforts to cut emissions of this potent greenhouse gas.  The result is that other federal agencies, the Bureau of Land Management notable among them, continue to drag their feet in acknowledging the need for methane reductions and the cost of delaying action.

With President Obama himself calling for methane cuts nationwide, it’s critical that the Environmental Protection Agency get it right in curbing this potent climate threat.

Colorado Coal Welfare at its Worst

Arch Coal is poised for big breaks in Colorado, even as this giant coal company is sliding toward failure and facing an increasingly uncertain future.

The latest handout comes from the U.S. Forest Service, which last week finalized a plan to give Arch and other coal companies a special “exemption” to mine into Colorado’s backcountry.

There’s no beating around the bush on this.  The plan expressly sacrifices publicly owned wild forest lands (that means owned by all Americans) purely for Arch Coal’s financial benefit.  It’s a sad giveaway, especially given that these untrammeled wild places are truly one of a kind and really reflect what makes Colorado so special.

Like the Sunset Roadless Area, which skirts the iconic West Elk Wilderness.  Although WildEarth Guardians has been able to keep this area safe from Arch’s coal mining, the Forest Service’s giveaway ensures its destruction.

And as if the public lands giveaway wasn’t enough for Arch, the company’s also poised to get a break on its royalty payments.

Royalties of course, are what Arch pays you and me for the privilege of mining publicly owned coal.  Under the company’s latest request, the federal government would lose $3.1 million while Colorado would lose $1.75 million.

To boot, the request comes as Arch recently raised its CEO’s salary by 58%.  So not only are we losing money, we’re subsidizing a CEO pay increase.

Yet, in spite of these handsome handouts, Arch’s profits are still sliding downward.  Tumbling is how it was described in The Wall Street Journal.  And to top it all off, the coal giant was just stung by a Standard and Poor’s downgrade, from B+ to BB-.

The reason?  Declining demand for coal.

All the bailouts in the world can’t cover up the fact that coal is dying.  As Arch continues to tumble toward failure, one can only hope that these latest welfare payments in Colorado–our public lands and our public revenues–amount to nothing in the end.

The thought of subsidizing a giant coal company’s profits is bad enough.  But the thought of footing the bill for a coal company’s failure is outrageous.

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Adding insult to injury, Arch Coal vents more than $10 million worth of methane gas into the air every year from dozens of wells drilled above its West Elk coal mine in Colorado.  Arch has so far thwarted efforts to require the company to capture and utilize the gas.

We Can’t Frack our Way to Clean Air

With mounting revelations that air pollution from fracking threatens public health, you’d think that the Obama Administration would be rushing to ensure these harmful emissions are kept in check.

After all, reducing this pollution actually makes the oil and gas industry money.  Companies including BP, Williams (now WPX), Anadarko, and more all report enormous paybacks.

The reason?

It’s simple.  Reducing pollution means capturing gas that is usually just vented into the air, wasted.  More gas means more money.  In other words, controlling harmful air pollution means being more productive.

And it doesn’t end with fracking.  A recent NRDC report confirms companies can make money by reducing air pollution at every step of the process of producing oil and gas.  From the wells downstream to the distribution system, the industry is blessed with an array of options to make money while at the same time keeping our air safe to breathe.

It’s no surprise that when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year proposed updates to a suite of rules to limit air pollution from fracking, they found the proposal would actually yield millions for the oil and gas industry.

Win-win would be an understatement.  Even investors are calling on industry to control its pollution, noting the “financial risks” of wasting gas.  It’s the no-brainer of all no-brainers.  And given the enormous public health benefits we stand to reap, there’s absolutely no reason to delay.

Yet sadly, delay is exactly what the Obama Administration is doing.

As was reported earlier this week, the Environmental Protection Agency is putting off new clean air rules for fracking for another two weeks.  These rules were spurred after WildEarth Guardians and the San Juan Citizens Alliance filed suit against the Agency over its failure to meet deadlines under the Clean Air Act.

Now two weeks isn’t that much time, but it comes as the Administration is seemingly bent on appeasing the oil and gas industry in a cynical move to score political points with the electorate, even at the expense of our health and the environment.

Take for example, the Environmental Protection Agency recently backing down from efforts to protect clean water from fracking.  Or U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s recent announcement that the Administration was “speeding up” federal drilling (nevermind that there’s a glut in natural gas right now that has pushed prices to record lows and tempered drilling plans across the country).

In fact, WildEarth Guardians has heard that the delay on the clean air rules may very well be due to a White House demand to scrap key provisions over concerns about how the safeguards would affect Obama’s re-election campaign.

More to the point, it seems that Obama’s re-election campaign has the perception that regulating fracking will somehow be viewed as being responsible for high gasoline prices.

Ergo, ditch the clean air rules.

If true, it would not only stand as an abhorrent attempt to let politics trump public health, but it would be one of the most monumental miscalculations by this Administration.  Nevermind that more drilling–and certainly environmental regulation–hasn’t had any effect on gasoline prices.  Ultimately, it would amount to the President turning a win-win opportunity into a loser for all.

Without a doubt, it would be an abandonment of any and all leadership.

For Americans dealing firsthand with air pollution from fracking, this outcome could be devastating.

Like for parents of Erie, Colorado, which is north of Denver, who are facing the prospect of wells being fracked near two elementary schools and a daycare center.

Sure, I suppose there’s a chance the President may score political points for rhetoric, speculation, sloganeering, fear, and hype.  But for those of us living in the real world where facts and reason rein, this does nothing to protect our clean air.

Delaying common sense protections for public health and the environment is bad enough, especially when those protections will make the oil and gas industry more productive and profitable.  The prospect of the Obama Administrating using delay to scuttle what are arguably some of the most reasonable fracking safeguards ever would be unconscionable.

Watch this great documentary on Hydrofracking and Air from Kyle Montgomery on Vimeo, which focuses on the Marcellus shale in the northeast.

Coalorado Plateau

Superlatives are an understatement on the Colorado Plateau.

Home to Grand Canyon, Zion, Arches, and more, the region is the American West’s defining collision of contrasts pushed to some of the most beautiful extremes.  The land, the water, the people, the air–they’re a mélange of unlikely proportions that over time (lots of time) have come together to create one of the most iconically paradoxical joinders of culture and geology, water and desert, even life and death.

(just check out this Flickr album of bryandkeith’s bike tour of the Colorado Plateau, wonderful point of view and awesome photography!)

Yet even in this landscape marked by stark contrasts, there’s some things that seem out of place.

Like coal.

Not the natural seams of coal that streak buttes with black stripes of a carboniferous past, but the mines and the power plants concentrated in the region that have turned this past into a present-day environmental disaster.

By our count, the Colorado Plateau, which spans five states and encompasses most of the Colorado River watershed, supports 12 coal-fired power plants that collectively account for 44% of all coal-fired electricity generated in the Western United States (check out our map below, as well as another one like it on our Flickr site).  Unlike many plants in the nation that get their coal from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, these 12 are fueled entirely by mines on the Plateau.

Collectively, these plants take a huge toll on the region’s air, water, and land.  And this where another set of less appealing superlatives come in.

Like largest coal-fired power plant west of the Mississippi River, a distinction that belongs to the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona.  At 2,400 megawatts, the power plant is capable of providing energy to more than 1.5 million households annually.

Or largest source of nitrogen oxide emissions, a byproduct of coal combustion that forms smog and haze, a distinction that belongs to the Four Corners Power Plant in New Mexico.  In 2011, the plant released more than 37,500 tons, as much as 1.96 million cars.

Or three of the top 25 largest sources of carbon dioxide in the United States–the Navajo Generating Station, Four Corners Power Plant, and Jim Bridger Station in Wyoming (13th, 24th, and 14th, respectively).

To that end, the largest source of carbon dioxide in every state in the region (with the exception of Utah) is located on the Plateau:  Arizona’s Navajo Generating Station, New Mexico’s Four Corners Power Plant, Colorado’s Craig Generating Station, and Wyoming’s Jim Bridger Station (the Hunter Power Plant in Utah is the second largest in the State).

But even more distressing is the fact that these plants collectively report more than 20.5 million pounds of toxic chemicals released annually into the air and water, and on the land.  To put that into perspective, that’s almost as much as was released in the entire State of Colorado in 2010 (23 million tons reported to EPA).

In other words, these 12 power plants spew almost as much toxic pollution as an entire state.  These toxic releases include more than 1,800 pounds of mercury emitted into the air from the plant’s smokestacks.

Perhaps it’s no wonder the Colorado Plateau has some of the highest concentrations of mercury in the West.  Studies in Mesa Verde National Park, an icon of the region’s rich pre-Puebloan history, have even confirmed the link between the region’s power plants and mercury contamination.

Check out our detailed chart of toxic releases for every one of these coal-fired power plants.

Not surprisingly, haze and smog are becoming major concerns.  Air monitors throughout the region have reported dozens of exceedances of federal limits on ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of urban smog.  In an area defined and treasured because of its remoteness, it’s clear vistas, and it’s lack of urbanity, that’s a big problem.

And while power plants aren’t the only source of pollution in the region, it’s becoming all too clear that the key to solving these problems is to tackle coal on the Colorado Plateau.

This imperative is especially urgent given there are still looming plans to expand the region’s coal footprint.  The proposed Desert Rock power plant in New Mexico is still on the table and there’s been a recent surge in Obama Administration support for expanding coal development on Navajo lands.  And Colorado has at least three new coal mine proposals developing, Oak Mesa, Red Cliff, and Sage Creek.

The list, unfortunately, is expanding.

Certainly, the Colorado Plateau is defined by its contrasts, but there’s been a certain harmony in all this.  The irony with coal is that is stands to overshadow even this region’s rich contradictions, especially as global warming makes this land ever drier, hotter, even dustier.

For anyone who loves the American West, there should be no question that there needs to be a move away from coal on the Colorado Plateau.

That may be the biggest understatement of them all.

Colorado Plateau Coal Map-March 2012