New Greenhouse Gas Data: Carbon Creeping Up and Methane Still Underestimated

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency yesterday released its annual report on greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s largest sources of pollution, revealing that we still have enormous progress to make in cutting carbon.

The big bombshell was that in 2013, greenhouse gas emissions actually increased.  That’s right, increased.  Not only that, but the increase was tied to increased coal burning.

It’s a shameful reminder of how the fossil fuel industry continues to dig our nation deeper into climate debt.  With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calling for a 40-70% reduction in carbon emissions below 2010 levels by mid-century, the last thing we need is an increase in emissions.  It underscores that the fossil fuel industry’s resistance to limiting its pollution needs to be countered more fiercely than ever if we have any hope of making progress.

This is especially the case with regards to methane.  Sure, the EPA yesterday hyped its claim that methane emissions from fracking have decreased 73% since 2011.  But as Bobby Magill at Climate Central noted, the agency’s report fails to fully account for methane leaks at oil and gas wells, which studies have found can approach 12% in some regions.

What’s more, EPA’s data relies on a faulty assumption that methane has a global warming potential of 25.  The global warming potential is a measure of how potent a greenhouse gas is compared to carbon.  Yet as we reported before, the latest findings from the IPCC indicate that over a 20-year timeframe, methane actually has a global warming potential of 86.

In other words, the world’s leading body of climate scientists say that one ton of methane equals 86 tons of carbon dioxide.

For EPA’s report, it means that estimates of carbon dioxide equivalency associated with methane are more than half a billion metric tons too low, an error of 70%.  The EPA may be correct that there was a reduction in methane since 2011, but with such grossly inaccurate emissions reported, it seems like the hole we’re trying to dig out of is just getting deeper (this is confirmed by the latest studies finding that more fracking for gas not only won’t reduce carbon emissions, but will also undermine renewable energy).

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Total methane emissions reported by EPA in 2013 and carbon dioxide equivalency based on a global warming potential of 25 and 86. The difference is more than half a billion tons of carbon.

Another bombshell is that underground coal mine methane emissions increased by nearly 25% between 2012 and 2013.  The industry reported methane emissions equal to 41 million metric tons of carbon in 2013 (of course, with a global warming potential of 86, it would actually be more than 141 million metric tons).

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Coal mine methane emissions increased by nearly 25% between 2012 and 2013.

No matter how you slice it, though, the data shows that coal mines are responsible for nearly 20% of all methane emissions in the U.S., a staggering figure.

In case you’re wondering, where these gassy coal mines are located, the majority are in Appalachia, but a few mines in the West–namely the San Juan mine in northwestern New Mexico, the Westridge mine in Utah, and Arch Coal’s West Elk mine in Colorado–made the top 20.  The top emitter, the Walter Energy mine in Alabama, reportedly released nearly 5 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.  That’s more than an average coal-fired power plant.   Here’s the full list of gassy mines >>  

More than anything, the latest greenhouse gas reporting data confirms that we can’t afford to delay carbon reductions.  It’s why last week, WildEarth Guardians joined a coalition of organizations in calling on the Obama Administration to stay firm in its commitment to curtail methane from oil and gas operations, and it’s why we’re digging in more aggressively than ever on our challenges to more coal mining and burning, and more fracking, in the American West.

We have major challenges ahead, but also major opportunities.  It’s time to step it up.

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The San Juan Generating Station in northwestern New Mexico is fueled by the San Juan coal mine, one of the top emitters of coal mine methane in the United States. WildEarth Guardians just filed an opening brief in federal court to stop an expansion of this mine.

Fair Market Secret (and Updated Powder River Basin Map)

On the heels of news that more than one billion tons of coal have been auctioned off from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming just in the last year, the Bureau of Land Management yesterday stunningly rejected a bid from Peabody Energy for one of the biggest coal leases ever to be offered.

The lease in question, called South Porcupine, would have added 400 million tons of coal to Peabody’s North Antelope Rochelle mine, the second largest in the U.S.

The reason for rejecting Peabody’s bid?  According to the Bureau of Land Management, their 90¢ per ton offer for the lease was below fair market value.

But what is fair market value?  Funny you should ask, because the fact is, we don’t know.

That’s because the Bureau of Land Management won’t tell us.  In fact, not only will they not tell us what fair market value is, they won’t even tell us how they calculate fair market value.

In a 2011 response to a Freedom of Information Act request from WildEarth Guardians asking for fair market value records for several coal leases that were already sold, the Agency refused to provide any documents.  Their reason?  Well, read for yourself:

In this case, the government is involved in a commercial endeavor and is statutorily required to ensure that it receives at least fair market value (FMV) for the coal being sold. We are withholding coal reservoir appraisal data, coal reservoir geological analysis data, and the FMV data that were derived from the appraisal and geological data. Disclosure of the referenced data could cause substantial harm to the competitive position of the government by creating an unfair or “gamed” bidding processt thereby suppressing the value of bids for pending sales, as well as in subsequent sales of adjacent lands.

The Agency went on to assert:

We are also withholding the information in these documents pursuant to exemption 5 because disclosure of this information could interfere with the deliberative process leading up to BLM’s final decisions on FMV estimates. The documents reveal BLM staff opinions and recommendations that are considered in development of the FMV estimate. Disclosure of that information could create confusion about the primary factors considered in FMV decisions and would have a chilling effect on the agency’s candid discussion of the various factors that influence the FMV estimates.

You can read the full response here (page 10 has their response on the fair market value data).  In other words, fair market value is secret and the process for calculating fair market value is secret.  If this sounds a bit odd, it’s because it is.

Because the Bureau of Land Management is basically claiming not only that it can’t release fair market value data for leases that have already been sold, but it can’t even release records that explain how fair market value is calculated.

It would be like an appraiser not only refusing to share with us the appraised value of our home, but also refusing to share with us the procedures for appraising our home.  That would be a huge problem, especially when it came time to, oh, I don’t know, sell our home.

Yet that’s exactly what’s going on here.  Because the coal being auctioned off in the Powder River Basin is owned by the federal government, which means it’s owned by us.  That means it’s supposed to be sold to make money for us.

Of course, how do we know we’re making money if we don’t even know the value of what we’re selling?

We don’t know.  And, unfortunately, we apparently can’t know because according to the Bureau of Land Management, the value of our public assets and the process for valuing those public assets, is secret.

While this may be convenient for the federal government, ultimately, it leaves the American public with little reason to believe that we’re actually recovering the full value of this coal.

As for all the Bureau of Land Management’s excuses about “substantial harm” to the competitive position of the government and the “chilling effect” of releasing fair market information, this all seems to be a ruse.

Although the Agency has a point that releasing fair market value data for pending leases could lead to rigged bidding (in fact, that’s exactly what happened in the late 70’s and early 80’s, read the declaration of economist Tom Sanzillo at page 18-22, which was filed in conjunction with WildEarth Guardians’ most recent lawsuit over coal leasing in the Powder River Basin), the fact is, it’s a rigged process already.  That’s because, for the most part, there is no bidding for Powder River Basin coal.  In the last 22 years, 27 coal leases have been sold and only five have had more than one bidder.  If that’s not rigged bidding in and of itself, then I don’t know what is.

Regardless, there should be no problem in releasing fair market value data for leases that have already been sold.  The only thing this data would ever “chill” is public concern over whether the government is doing its job.

So what is the Bureau of Land Management hiding?  Honestly, I think they’re hiding the fact that for years now, they’ve been offering Powder River Basin coal at bargain prices.

That’s not say they haven’t been selling the coal at fair market value.  It’s just that fair market value, in all reality, probably isn’t really, truly, actually fair market value.

Perhaps they’re waking up to this.  I hope so.  The South Porcupine coal lease threatens to lead to the release of more than 660 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s handy online greenhouse gas equivalency calculator, that’s equal to the annual emissions of 156 coal-fired power plants.

The Bureau of Land Management seems to be taking a newfound stand against artificially cheap coal and in turn, global warming.  Let’s hope this trend continues.

In the meantime, I challenge the Agency to come clean with its fair market value assessments.  Just like no reasonable homeowner would ever allow an appraiser to keep their appraisals secret, the American public has a right to know how the Bureau of Land Management is assessing our coal and what the value really is.

UPDATED MAP!

On other fronts, check out our updated interactive Powder River Basin coal map (view the larger map for easier navigation).  And if you’re into Google Earth, download this .kml file with more detailed data and learn more about this coal producing region.  The map is always available on our Powder River Basin map page.

Wasted Opportunity

I wrote previously on Xcel Energy’s plans to lock into long-term coal contracts for coal that, well, didn’t seem to exist.

Well, the hype continues.  Most recently, Peabody Energy announced plans to invest $200 million to move its Twentymile coal mining operations in northwestern Colorado to the new Sage Creek coal, which boosters claim will produce 12 million tons of new coal a year. Of course, this would make it the biggest coal mine ever in Colorado, which is surprising given that according to U.S. Energy Information Administration coal production reports, no mine in the State has ever produced more than 10 million tons annually.

According to both Peabody and Xcel, the new coal investment will fuel long-term contracts for 40 million tons of coal from the Sage Creek mine to keep the Hayden coal-fired power plant in northwestern Colorado burning for 16 years.

Putting aside the hyperbole, though, including the fact that Peabody still doesn’t have its crucial federal coal lease to ensure its long-term supply, all I can say is, really?

Both Xcel and Peabody are digging in, literally, in what has to be one of the most backward investments in the U.S. right now.  Just in terms of air impacts, economists are saying that coal-fired electricity costs us up to more than 5 times the value that it provides.  And the trend for coal right now?  To paraphrase The Economist, it’s not good.

And as I wrote before, even Xcel admits that so far to date, coal costs for the Hayden plant have climbed by 70%.  This is on top of the $170 million the company and the other owners of the plant intend to spend on clean air retrofits at Hayden.  Even then, the company plans to shutter half of Hayden by 2025 and the other half by 2036.

It’s an admirable goal of retrofitting the plant with up-to-date pollution controls.  But with costs and uncertainty mounting, the only thing that seems certain is that this investment is fast becoming a toxic asset.

Even Peabody seems to be hedging its bets, claiming that coal from Sage Creek will also fuel exports to Europe.  So much for homegrown energy.

Xcel claims that retrofitting Hayden, in other words making its coal plant cleaner, is the lowest cost alternative for meeting Clean Air Act.  Yet at the same time, the company is distancing itself from renewable energy development.  This is the epitome of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Despite all the hype, the signs aren’t good for Sage Creek and the Hayden power plant.  Peabody and Xcel can justify millions in short-term coal investments all they want, but in the end, it seems like wasted money and wasted opportunity.

The Sage Creek coal mine area near Hayden, Colorado (photo by John F. Russell).

Coal Continues to Take Ugly Center Stage in West

Yes, President Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline for now, giving us some hope that perhaps our government might be able to make the hard decisions needed to confront global warming and move beyond fossil fuels.

But then again, it’s hard to see this as real progress when the overall challenge we face seems to show no sign of diminishing anytime soon.  I’m talking about coal, of course, which as the EPA noted last week, continues to be the number one contributor to global warming in the U.S.

Here in the West, the challenge of coal seems to be mounting almost daily, with the industry digging in, literally, to keep mining and burning.  Just in the last two weeks, WildEarth Guardians has played defense on a number of new proposals, including:

Of course, there are some good signs here and there.  The latest Energy Information Administration electricity monthly report confirms that in 2011, all of Colorado’s new electricity generators were wind and solar, while all of the state’s retired generators were coal.  The retirement was a 100 megawatt coal-fired boiler at Xcel Energy’s Cherokee power plant in North Denver, which was spurred by the State’s Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act.

At the same time, however, a good friend of mine, Leslie Glustrom with Clean Energy Action, pointed out that although 16 gigawatts of new wind generation in Colorado are in the “queue,” all of it has been put on hold by Xcel until 2028.  And while the company intends to take 1,268 megawatts of coal-fired capacity offline by 2017, the company has also been seeking rate increases to keep 2,229 megawatts of coal-fired capacity operating to 2035 and beyond.

Adding to this, the company intends to repower some of its coal-fired power plants, including Cherokee and Arapahoe, both in Denver, with natural gas, yet another fossil fuel.

I’ve already pointed out the dangers of simply replacing coal with natural gas in Colorado.

We’ve beat back the XL pipeline, but in the end, it seems like we’re being beat back even more by one coal project after the next here in the West.  It doesn’t help that the Obama Administration continues to make excuses for endorsing ramped up coal mining in the Powder River Basin and elsewhere in the West.

So let’s savor the setback of tar sands, but not forget that unless and until we can rein in coal, especially in the West, our progress is fleeting, at best.

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In 2009, WildEarth Guardians called on Colorado Governor Bill Ritter to stop clowning around when it comes to confronting climate change and power past coal.  It’s high time to call on President Obama and others to do the same.

Updated Oak Mesa Map

We updated our interactive Oak Mesa coal mine map, check it out below.

Among the new additions, links to the comments we submitted last week on the latest coal exploration proposal, a link to our report documenting the lack of full reclamation at Oxbow’s other coal mine, and more background info.  You can also download the .kml file here and explore in Google Earth.  Get to know the area and issues.

Check out our Interactive Maps

Check out our Interactive Maps menu in the sidebar, where we’ve got links to various and evolving maps highlighting some of the places and issues that WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program is tackling.  So far, you can check out our interactive map of the proposed Oak Mesa coal mine area in western Colorado, a map of Colorado’s coal-fired power plants, and a map of coal mining in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, which is also presented below.

For those more adventurous, if you open the maps in the larger view, you can download the .kml file and import into Google Earth.

Stay tuned for more!