A Dark Year for Coal Gives New Hope for Transition

It’s no surprise that 2015 was a tough year for coal and that 2016 is going to be tougher. Not only did 2015 represent a 30-year low in production in the U.S., but projections indicate 2016 will experience an annual drop in production not felt since 1958.

But the bleakness of 2016 promises to open the door wider than ever for a concerted and just transition away from coal. While it’s tough times for the industry, the silver linings–a boost clean energy, climate protections, and a move to more sustainable and prosperous economies–is brighter than ever.

Overall, just how grim are things looking? Well, we took a look at production data reported to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration for the first quarter of 2016 and based these numbers, things are looking BAD. This is especially the case in the American West, which right now is the source of more than half of all coal produced in the U.S.

Our methods were simple and by no means a precise forecast, but they are insightful and certainly underscore that 2016 will stand as one of the darkest years for coal companies. And without a doubt, they certainly foreshadow the full collapse of the industry.  Let’s take a look at how each state is faring.

Colorado

Wow, things are looking bad in Colorado. The state already saw a 23-year low in production at the end of 2015, but the pace of mining in 2016 indicates something worse is in store.

We looked up production reports for all active mines in the state and for the first quarter of this year, a total of 2.4 million tons of coal was reported. Simply multiplying that by four, you get an annual rate of a little less than 10 million tons by the end of 2016.

CO coal production

Coal production reported by active Colorado mines for first quarter 2016.

Less than 10 million tons is quite a drop. In fact, based on historical production data for the state, coal production has not fallen below 10 million tons since 1976. That means Colorado is on track to hit a 40-year low in coal production, a staggering decline.

Colorado Coal Production 1960-2011

In a way, this projected decline mirrors the recent demolition of an iconic coal silo in the western Colorado town of Somerset. Quite literally, coal companies are collapsing in Colorado,

Utah

The alarms have been sounding over Utah’s coal decline for years now, but what’s happened so far pales in comparison to what 2016 is likely to bring.

Again looking up production reports for all active mines in the state and for the first quarter of this year, a total of 3.3 million tons of coal was reported. Simply multiplying that by four, you get an annual rate of nearly 13.5 million tons by the end of 2016.

utah coal production table

Coal production reported by active Utah mines for first quarter 2016.

That, too, is quite a drop. Based on historical production data for the state, the last time coal production was lower than 13.5 million tons was in 1985, a little more than 30 years ago. The chart below, based on recent and long-term data from the State of Utah, shows that, despite some ups, it’s been mostly downs since peak production in 1996.

Utah Coal Production, 1985-2016 (projected)

Montana

Montana’s coal production has actually been relatively stable over the last several years, with production rates hovering around 40 million tons annually since the early 1990’s. That’s going to change this year.

Once again looking at production reports for all active mines in the state and for the first quarter of this year, a total of 7.4 million tons of coal was reported. Multiplying that by four, you get an annual rate of 29.68 million tons by the end of 2016.

montana coal production

Coal production reported by active Montana mines for first quarter 2016.

To put that into perspective, the last time coal production in Montana fell below 30 million tons was in the early 1980’s.  In fact, as of 1985, Montana was producing more than 33 million tons annually according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.  Once again, in 2016, we’re likely to see another more than 30-year low in production in a western state.

montana coal graph

Historical Montana coal production, 1890-2000

New Mexico

New Mexico’s coal production peaked at nearly 30 million tons annually around 2001, but has been in pretty steady decline ever since. In 2015, total production fell below 20 million tons for the first time since 1987. This year, the decline seems poised to continue.

Once again looking at production reports for all active mines in the state and for the first quarter of this year, a total of 4.2 million tons of coal was reported. Multiplying that by four, you get an annual rate of a little over 17 million tons by the end of 2016.

new mexico 2016 table

Coal production reported by active New Mexico mines for first quarter 2016.

That rate of production hasn’t been seen in New Mexico since the early 1980’s.  Once again, in 2016, we’re likely to see another more than 30-year low in production in a western state.

new mexico coal production

Historical New Mexico coal production, 1882-2006

Wyoming

Ah, Wyoming. The largest coal producing state in the nation and home to the Powder River Basin, which produces more than 40% of all coal consumed in the U.S. We can’t possibly expect to see such substantial declines here, can we?

Amazingly, yes, although not as staggering as Colorado’s projected 40-year low. After suffering a 13-year low in 2015, it looks like the plummeting is slated to continue.

Looking at production reports for all active mines in the state (all 16 of them) and for the first quarter of this year, a total of 65.4 million tons of coal was reported. Multiplying that by four, you get an annual rate of 261.63 million tons by the end of 2016.

wyoming coal table

Coal production reported by active Wyoming mines for first quarter 2016.

That’s a lot of coal projected to be produced in 2016! But wait, is it really? Well, yes and no.

The bad news is, according to the Wyoming Mining Association, the state hasn’t produced 261 million tons or less since 1994, 22 years ago. It’s no wonder that the state’s largest mining companies, including Peabody, Arch, and Alpha, have all filed for bankruptcy in the last year. Their Wyoming mines are the largest and often most profitable, yet even here, they can’t handle the pressure of coal’s demise.

wyoming coal production graph

Historical Wyoming coal production, 1970-2013

The good news is, with 261 million tons likely to be produced in 2016, Wyoming will still rein as the top producer, for what that’s now worth.

The Take Home

Of course, these are just simple projections that presume the coal production rates reported for the first quarter of 2016 continue until the end of the year. The rates could go up, but they could also go down. Overall, they underscore that 2016 is going to be the roughest year yet in the recent history of coal.

And with companies laying off hundreds of workers, a moratorium on new federal coal leasing, coal industry bankruptcies, revelations that executives have run companies into the ground at the expense of miners, and studies continuing to find that keeping coal in the ground is necessary to meet climate protection goals, the writing on the wall seems to be turning into a best-selling multi-volume series.

That’s why this week, WildEarth Guardians kicked of its “Just Transition” Campaign, an effort to call attention to the need to help communities and workers move on from coal in the western United States. The push is starting with billboards in Casper, Wyoming and Salt Lake City Utah.

The demise of the coal industry is something to celebrate, but the collapse of coal shouldn’t leave people and communities behind. It’s time to make transition a reality and to invest the resources and expertise needed to make it happen.

2016 is going to be a terrible year for coal, but it looks like things are only going to get worse. Now, more than ever, is the time to move on.

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A Year of Major Climate Progress: WildEarth Guardians’ Top Ten of 2015

2015 was a seriously amazing year for the climate movement (the Pope!). As well for WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program, it was a year of tremendous success.

We secured lawsuit wins, rallied widespread public support for climate protection, mounted unprecedented pressure on the Obama Administration to rein in greenhouse gases and the fossil industry, helped kick off a new movement to keep our fossil fuels in the ground, and more.

The year’s progress marks nearly a decade of dogged and strategic advocacy by WildEarth Guardians. Beginning in 2007 when our Climate and Energy Program was founded, we’ve been at the forefront of campaigns to tackle fossil fuels in the western U.S. From confronting the region’s coal-fired power plants to challenging coal mining and fracking, our aim has been to make it more difficult to produce and consume fossil fuels. In doing so,  we’ve made it easier for clean energy to take hold and power our nation, spurring enormous reductions in greenhouse gases and playing a vital role in global efforts to combat climate change.

As 2016 kicks into gear, we thought we’d get inspired for the new year ahead by taking stock of our key successes in 2015. A lot happened, but we thought it best to recount the top ten key milestones of the past 12 months (in no particular order). So, without further introduction, here’s to the success of the past year and the promise of much more to come!

WG Utah Fracking Credit Brian Roller1. Interior Department Cancels Oil and Gas Lease Sales

Since the inception of WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program, we’ve been confronting the U.S. Department of the Interior’s sale of our western public lands to the oil and gas industry. Bending to the demands of the likes of Exxon and BP, Interior has over the years leased more than 34 million acres of federal oil and gas, mostly in the American West. This leasing effectively hands over the rights for private companies to drill and frack our public lands (Wyoming has the most acreage of federal oil and gas leases, most of which were sold just in the last 10 years-check out a map showing the leases offered for sale since 2005).

While leasing has been a disaster for our public lands (as we’ve noted), it’s emerged as a major impediment to climate progress. Fracking not only unleashes massive amounts of methane pollution, when burned, it fuels our nation’s global warming footprint. A report released by The Wilderness Society in 2015 found that oil and gas produced from public lands and waters is responsible for 10% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Nearly half of these emissions can be traced back to production from public lands in the American West.

In 2015, we stepped up our efforts to confront public lands oil and gas leasing, aiming to raise the profile of the climate consequences, mobilize the public and our allied organizations, and draw national attention to the issue. On all accounts, we succeeded. We turned out supporters in Cheyenne, helped organize more than 100 people to show up in Denver, and stirred the pot in Salt Lake City.

Our efforts culminated in the unprecedented cancellation of a lease sale in Utah, a move that rippled nationwide and spurred the cancellation of another lease sale subsequently scheduled in Washington, D.C.

Although certainly the fight isn’t over (the Interior Department is facing pressure from the oil and gas industry and the politicians they support to put fracking first on public lands), the tide is turning.

 

2.  Leading the Charge to Keep it in the Ground, Kicking off the Next Climate Campaign

After years of fighting fossil fuel on myriad fronts, a coalition of environmental advocacy groups finally came together in 2015 with the aim of launching a unified front to stop the leasing of publicly owned oil, gas, and coal throughout the U.S. Guardians played a key role in making it happen, helping spearhead a letter to the President and joining with a diverse coalition to rally in person with a simple ask: “Keep it in the Ground.”

Keeping it in the ground is a simple concept. By slowing and ultimately stopping the production of coal, oil, and gas, we incentivize a transition from fossil fuels and meaningfully curtail future greenhouse gas emissions. In simple terms, carbon kept in the ground is carbon kept out of the atmosphere.

The opportunity to keep fossil fuels in the ground is especially at hand with regards to federal oil, gas, and coal. These are the fossil fuels owned by the American public and managed by the Interior Department, and which underlie vast acreages, mainly in the American West. Right now, these fossil fuels are responsible for more than 20% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Every American has a say in how these fossil fuels are managed, and with the Obama Administration fully committed to combating climate change, has every reason to expect them to be kept in the ground.

Sadly, these expectations have been massively let down. Since taking office, the President has overseen the sale of nearly billions of tons of coal and millions of acres of oil and gas leases. In just the last month, the Administration approved the sale of 738,000 tons of coal in Wyoming and announced the upcoming auction of more than 45,000 acres of oil and gas leases in Utah. Ugh.

However, things are looking brighter. In the wake of the roll out of a formal Keep it in the Ground movement, new federal legislation was proposed by U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Bernie Sanders, and others to ban new oil, gas, and coal leasing. And, in rejecting the Keystone XL Pipeline, President Obama himself remarked, “we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky.”

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Calling on President Obama to stop leasing more publicly owned coal, oil, and gas.

WildEarthGuardians_Coal3.  Win Over Colowyo and Trapper Coal Mining

With coal, the primary aim of Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program has been to get to the root of the problem.

That’s why for several years now, we’ve sought to confront new coal mining in the American West, targeting production as a means to curtail consumption and future carbon pollution (after all, coal is mined for one reason: to be burned; no mining, no burning, no carbon).

The focus of our campaign has been on the Interior Department’s role in approving the mining of publicly owned coal in the western U.S. For years, Interior has rubberstamped coal mining with no public notice and no consideration of the climate consequences. With Interior overseeing 40% of all coal production in the U.S., which in turn produces 11% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the nation, this is a huge deal. In 2015, that all changed.

In May, we secured a court victory that held the Interior Department illegally turned its back on the public and on the climate consequences of approving more coal mining at the Colowyo and Trapper mines in northwest Colorado. The ruling capped a more than two year legal campaign by Guardians to put a stop to Interior’s practice of blindly authorizing more mining across the western U.S.

While the win itself was significant, the ruling sent shockwaves throughout Colorado and beyond, it held, for the first time, that the Interior Department had a duty to account for the climate impacts of its coal approvals and to be transparent with the public about these impacts.

More importantly, the ruling held that if the Interior Department continued to ignore its obligations under federal law, future mining approvals would be overturned, potentially shutting down mining operations.

The court win also helped to kick up the profile of the federal coal program (seemingly exponentially) and to amplify calls for reform. This past summer, Interior moved to reform the way it manages publicly owned coal, acknowledging a need to “manage our coal program in a way that is consistent with our climate change objectives.”

U.S. Senators, including Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, also weighed in, calling on Interior to account for the carbon pollution associated with its coal approvals. The call was followed by proposed legislation from Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts that would prohibit new coal leasing unless and until Interior raised royalty rates to account for carbon costs. Even former Interior Department echoed the calls.

In the meantime, we followed up our court win by filing new lawsuits, doubling down on our efforts to stop illegal coal approvals and to spur reform that protects our climate. While the rhetoric around the federal coal program is changing for the better, it means nothing unless things change on the ground.

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The Colowyo coal mine in northwestern Colorado.

DSCN56284.  Keeping Coal-fired Power Plants on Track for Retirement

WildEarth Guardians has a stellar track record of confronting the production side of coal in the American West, but over the years, we’ve also scored some pretty major victories on the consumption side as well. After all, by confronting both sides of the equation–the mine and the power plant–we can mount an even more powerful force for clean energy, helping the western U.S. transition from coal more quickly and effectively.

In 2015, our efforts maintained course as we scored key victories that both elevated the pressure for coal-fired power plants to retire and provided certainty around the future of one particularly dirty plant in northeastern Utah.

The Bonanza power plant, owned by Deseret Power Electric Cooperative, was built in the early 1980’s and for years avoided installing legally required pollution controls under the Clean Air Act. After pressure from Guardians, the Environmental Protection Agency finally intervened and proposed to issue a permit that would, in some respects, bring the facility into compliance with clean air laws. However, the permit ultimately fell short of ensuring full compliance, so we appealed in early 2015.

Our appeal opened the door for some frank and often contentious negotiations that led to a groundbreaking agreement where Deseret committed to a lifetime limit on coal consumption and upgraded pollution controls, Guardians agreed to stand down, and the Environmental Protection Agency agreed to put it all together in a new air pollution permit for the power plant. The agreement is an effective retirement plan for the Bonanza plant, but most importantly provides certainty around its fate and impacts to clean air in the meantime.

Beyond the Bonanza plant, Guardians also secured an agreement from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to finally take action to clean up two of Utah’s dirtiest coal-fired power plants–the Hunter and Huntington plants, both operated and primarily owned by Pacificorp. Although it has yet to be seen whether the Agency will step up and actually ensure an effective clean up plan, our efforts have kept the pressure on Pacificorp to rethink its plans to keep them operating for years to come.

WildEarth Guardians may not have the millions in hand to fight coal-fired power plants like the Sierra Club does, but dollar for dollar, we’re doing more to keep a spotlight shining on these dirty energy plants in the American West and bolstering the transition to clean energy.

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The 550-megawatt Bonanza coal-fired power plant in northeastern Utah faces a lifetime limit on coal consumption through an agreement with Guardians and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Credit Theo Stroomer

5.  Coverage of Coal Campaign in High Country News

WildEarth Guardians efforts to confront the climate impacts of coal mining in the American West received front page treatment in High Country News this past November. The article was a refreshing look into our campaign to keep coal in the ground and the very real intersection with economic health and vitality in coal producing communities of the western U.S.

Importantly, the article highlighted a key position of Guardians, which is that keeping coal in the ground shouldn’t mean that workers are thrown in the streets and communities left hanging. The reality is, towns like Craig, Colorado and Gillette, Wyoming, need support to plan and implement a transition away from coal so that when it is ultimately kept in the ground (and it is a matter of when, not if), they’re left prosperous and sustainable.

That’s why as Guardians has been unabashed about shutting down the federal coal program, we’ve also been upfront that initiative by local, state, and federal agencies to help communities transition needs to go hand in hand.

The reality is, our climate can’t afford more coal.  But the reality is, we need to support communities. These two goals are not mutually exclusive. However, with the Obama Administration proposing more coal mining in the western U.S., including a heinous proposal to lift National Forest protections to allow Arch Coal to expand its western Colorado mine, parity has yet to be achieved.

CampaignAgainstCoal.Shogren.151109_Page_1WEG_GreaterChaco6.  Thwarting Chaco Oil and Gas Leasing

The Greater Chaco region of northwestern New Mexico has always been near and dear to our hearts. The cultural epicenter of the American Southwest, this region is magical, an amazing convergence of natural beauty, spiritual significance, and human presence.

Sadly, it’s also been trashed by the fracking industry. Over the years, more than 40,000 oil and gas wells have been drilled in the region, turning this landscape into a fossil fuel pincushion. Some areas, however, have stayed safe, yielding marginal or no oil and gas. With the advent of shale fracking, that changed.

Now, the oil and gas industry is pushing ever closer to Chaco Canyon National Historical Park and its outlying ruins, putting Navajo communities, sacred places, and the climate at great risk. Tapping the Mancos shale, industry is engaging in the most intensive and destructive form of oil and gas development its ever seen, and they seem to care little about who and what gets in the way.

In the past year, we’ve mounted a major campaign to turn the tide against fracking in Greater Chaco, starting by successfully thwarting the Interior Department’s attempt to lease several thousands of acres of publicly owned oil and gas near the National Historical Park. Since then, we’ve sought to turn back new fracking permits and shine an ever brighter spotlight on the Interior Department’s role in letting industry run roughshod over the cultural fabric of the landscape.

While facing some setbacks, including an adverse ruling from a federal judge in New Mexico, we’ve remained undaunted. In doing so, we’ve made fracking in Greater Chaco a national concern and helped draw greater political scrutiny to the Interior Department’s actions.

Our ultimate goal is to turn back fracking throughout the Greater Chaco region, and in doing so, light the spark for a frack-free American West.


Powder River Google Map7.  Massive Powder River Basin Coal Leases Withdrawn

WildEarth Guardians has been focusing on coal mining in the Powder River Basin of northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana for many years, working to slow and ultimately stop the flow of coal from the nation’s largest coal producing region. All told, more than 41% of the nation’s coal comes from this region, stripped from massive mines by the nation’s largest coal companies.

This coal fuels power plants from coast to coast and is even shipped overseas to be burned. In total, more than 600 million metric tons of carbon are unleashed from Powder River Basin coal burning every year, amounting to more than 12% of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.

Our engagement in the Powder River Basin was really kicked into gear by an industry rush to lease billions of tons of coal from the U.S. Interior Department around 2009. At one point, 16 new leases were under consideration by Interior, which would expand the region’s largest mines and lock in industry’s right to mine billions of tons of coal.

Since then, we’ve kept the pressure up to thwart this rash of new leasing. And although several leases have unfortunately been sold, we’ve kept a number at bay, including two high profile leases that were withdrawn this past year:  the West Jacobs Ranch and Antelope Ridge leases.

The withdrawal of these leases was huge. Literally. Together, the leases contained nearly two billion tons of coal, which if burned would have unleashed more than 3.2 billion tons of carbon pollution. The leases were being pursued by Arch Coal and Peabody Energy, the largest coal companies in the U.S. What’s more, the leases were slated to expand Arch’s Black Thunder mine and Peabody’s North Antelope-Rochelle mine, the two largest coal mines in the U.S.  Oh yeah, and these mines are in the largest coal producing region in the U.S.

It also confirmed in a big way the hastening and irreversible decline of the coal industry, and in particular Arch and Peabody. Both Arch and Peabody are facing a dire 2016, with both companies on the verge of bankruptcy. Reports indicate the industry as a whole is not likely to survive much longer.

Put another way, not only was two billion tons of coal kept in the ground, but the coal industry’s biggest companies with the biggest mines in the biggest coal producing region were kicked in the teeth.

Sure, both Arch and Peabody continue to fight for more coal, even going so far as to attack John Prine (yes, our beloved American folk artist). But after this last year, the prospects of a turn around seem incredibly unlikely.

NARM_pit-41 credit Peabody Energy

Peabody’s North Antelope-Rochelle strip mine in the Powder River Basin.

For web mapping-28.  Telling the Story of the Federal Coal Program

In the midst of growing climate consciousness and renewed international climate talks in Paris, attention to the federal coal program reached an all-time high in 2015. Guardians helped sharpen that attention and awareness in 2015, putting together a series of maps that for the first time provided a visual overview of the threats to the climate posed by publicly owned coal leases and the opportunities to keep it in the ground.

The mapping was an accomplishment in an of itself. The Interior Department does not maintain consistent spatial data for the federal coal program, leaving it up to individual state offices to decide what or what not to prepare and make available. These maps were put together through the transcription and tabulation of location data from hundreds of coal lease records.

But more importantly, the maps provide a power and simple vehicle for telling a more complete story around the federal coal program, particularly in the Western United States, where the vast majority of federal coal and coal leases are located. The maps even inspired Guardians to put together some micro-story maps, one on the Arch Coal Loophole, which would open the door for more mining in western Colorado, and one on Bowie Resources, a coal company that is emerging as a major climate threat.

mapping

9.  Exposing Climate Denial Within The Interior Department

The U.S. Interior Department’s continuing sale of publicly owned oil, gas, and coal is proof enough of the Department’s denial of climate change. However, this past year, we exposed true climate denial within the Department, revealing how the decentralization of Interior and the unwillingness of leadership to offer clear and compelling direction is fueling a virtual climate mutiny within the Obama Administration.

The revelations helped fuel unprecedented pressure and attention on the Interior Department’s management of our publicly owned fossil fuels and hold the Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, accountable to her acknowledgment that cutting carbon needs to be a goal of the Department of the Interior.

It also prompted the Bureau of Land Management to offer a memo to its offices stating emphatically, “Anthropogenic climate change is a reality….Please ensure that all discussions of climate change in BLM’s NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] documents are consistent with this conclusion.”

We still have progress yet to make in fully ferreting out climate denial within the Interior Department. In recent analyses of oil and gas leasing proposals, Interior continues to deny that its actions have any impact on the climate. In simple terms, the Interior Department continues to argue that all of its decisions are too small to matter, a rationale that we’ve challenged (see for example in our recent protest of Interior’s November 2015 oil and gas lease sale in Wyoming).

Conveniently, according to Interior, no decision to lease oil, gas, and coal appears to be big enough to matter. The implicit climate denial persists, but increasingly, the Interior Department is running out of excuses to avoid tackling climate change.

DSCN3822spring-creek-mine-00410.  Another Coal Win in Montana

And finally, Guardians scored another win in federal court in October, overturning another illegal coal mining approval in Montana.

This ruling, which targeted an expansion of the Spring Creek mine in the Powder River Basin of southeastern Montana, continued to affirm that the Interior Department’s management of our publicly owned coal is chronically flawed. Not only does the Department continue to turn its back on the climate impacts of its coal decisions, but it continues to put the interests of coal companies ahead of the American public. Our message to Interior: fix the federal coal program or face more legal pressure from Guardians.

With this ruling in hand, the prospects of more success in 2016, either through additional court wins or through much-needed reform of the federal coal program, seems inevitable.

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Given our success in 2015, the year to come holds tremendous promise. Already, there are rumblings about thwarting new sales of publicly owned oil, gas, and coal and growing the keep it in the ground movement. Here’s to 2016!

The Only Fair Return is Keeping Coal in the Ground

After years of rebuffing calls for change (and even highly visible endorsements of more coal production from former Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar), the U.S. Department of the Interior and Interior Secretary, Sally Jewell, are engaging the American public in an “honest conversation” about how to reform the management of our publicly owned coal.

It’s a watershed moment in the history of the Interior Department and the federal coal program, and a refreshingly welcome sign that the agency is finally starting to take seriously the need to stop rubberstamping more coal mining in the U.S.

After all, the Interior Department directly oversees the production of more than 40% of our nation’s coal, the vast majority of which comes from extensive publicly owned deposits in the western U.S.  When burned, this coal produces more than 11% of our nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions, a distressingly odd situation considering the Obama Administration’s express commitment to combating climate change.

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Coal train hauling a load south out of the Powder River Basin of Wyoming.

The federal coal program also stands in stark contrast to the President’s signature climate accomplishment, the Clean Power Plan, which was finalized by the Environmental Protection Agency earlier this month.  Even middle of the road environmental groups like The Wilderness Society have described the federal coal program as a “blind spot” in our nation’s plans to curb carbon emissions.

Yet in moving forward with its “honest conversation,” there seems to be a lack of forthrightness from the Interior Department.  Rather than come clean and tell the American public that its reform efforts are about the fate of our publicly owned coal, they’re couching reform in terms of “fair return,” asking the public, for example, to provide comment on royalty rates, fair market value, and how to ensure greater competition when leasing.

Everybody loves a “fair return,” no doubt, but from a climate perspective, the only way the American public public gets a fair return from coal is when it’s kept in the ground.

We all know this.  It’s why as the Interior Department has engaged in a series of “listening sessions” in the western U.S., the agency has been overwhelmed with comments and concerns about the future of coal.  Like last week in Gillette, Wyoming, the heart of the Powder River Basin, the nation’s largest coal producing region, where people overwhelmingly called on Interior to consider the future of their community.

The folks in Gillette get it.  This isn’t about reaping more money for taxpayers, this is about figuring out how to get to keeping it in the ground.  As I remarked:

“We can’t keep mining and burning coal and have any chance of meaningfully reducing carbon emissions and combating climate change….The reality is we have to move beyond coal and we have to leave it in the ground.”

That’s why as the Interior Department’s “honest conversation” has unfolded, WildEarth Guardians has aimed for the heart of what matters here.  In a report released earlier this month, we presented our plan for how the agency can get to a point where our coal is kept in the ground and our climate protected.  The plan includes five key milestones, including:

  1. A moratorium on leasing more coal;
  2. Retiring existing leases that are not producing;
  3. Recovering carbon costs as coal is produced;
  4. Honestly reporting to the American public on the true climate impacts of the federal coal program; and
  5. Helping communities dependent on publicly owned coal transition to more sustainable and prosperous economies.

By our measure, within 10-25 years, we can end the federal coal program by following this path.

Report Cover

Certainly, it won’t be easy.  Helping communities like Gillette transition away from coal will require immense leadership from the Interior Department and a commitment from Congress and other agencies to provide the resources to make it happen.  As coal companies continue to go bankrupt, don’t expect any help from them.

Of course, that’s assuming consensus builds around the need for transition.  Even though communities like Gillette understand that Interior’s reform efforts are really about the fate of coal, they deny, adamantly, that this fossil fuel has no role in our future.  In fact, Wyoming Governor Matt Mead called on the Interior Department to “Keep coal profitable.”

It’s bizarre.  With agreement over the role of coal in fueling climate change, scientific studies confirming that coal has to be kept in the ground, mounting evidence that more carbon emissions are costing our nation and our world dearly, and even ongoing federal court rulings against Interior for failing to address the climate impacts of more mining, the writing is on the wall.

Coal is going to go away, whether Gillette likes it or not.  Denying this reality, or worse deceiving people into believing this fallacy, is nothing short of reckless.

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Coal silos in Powder River Basin of Wyoming.

In the meantime, the Interior Department’s coal reform listening sessions are wrapping up this week in Denver and Farmington, New Mexico.  WildEarth Guardians will be there in force telling Interior to keep it in the ground.  Join us if you can, we’ll be rallying beforehand and spreading the word.  Here’s more info. on the Denver and the Farmington hearings.

And if you can’t attend a hearing, sign our petition calling on Interior Secretary, Sally Jewell, to keep our coal in the ground.  It’s our future, let’s speak out for it!

We can’t buy our way out of global warming.  The only fair return is to keep our coal in the ground.

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Feds Seriously Moving to Adopt Arch Coal Loophole

One would think that in the face of mounting controversy over the Obama Administration’s massive climate blind spot, the federal government would start to show some restraint when it comes to approving fossil fuel development on public lands.

Instead, they’ve done the complete opposite.  Not only that, but a new proposal from the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Interior signals they’re aiming for the worst, a scheme to sacrifice nearly 20,000 acres of wild forest lands to appease Arch Coal.

The proposal comes in the aftermath of a landmark court ruling that overturned a loophole allowing coal mining in National Forest roadless areas in western Colorado.  A dubious giveaway, the loophole opened up thousands of acres of protected lands for coal mining near the iconic West Elk Mountains.  Even worse, it opened the door for coal companies to develop methane venting wells.  Far from harmless, the venting is devastating for the climate and has already transformed public lands in the area into a de facto gas field.

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Methane venting well with West Elk Mountains in background.

Thankfully, last summer a federal judge held that when adopting the loophole the Departments of Agriculture and Interior illegally failed to account for the climate impacts of expanded mining near the iconic West Elk Mountains.  The order dealt an especially significant blow to Arch Coal, which planned to target 350 million tons of new coal mining in the area.

More importantly, it opened the door for the Agriculture and Interior Departments to get it right on climate.  Instead of deferring to the status quo and letting the fossil fuel industry get its way on our pubic lands, the order created an unprecedented opportunity for these agencies to finally say “no.”

Sadly, instead of seizing the opportunity, it appears the agencies remain intent on sacrificing our public lands at the expense of our climate.

In a notice today, the Department of Agriculture, with the Department of the Interior “cooperating,” announced it intends to restore the coal mining loophole, opening up 19,100 acres of protected National Forest lands for coal mining and putting Arch Coal’s plans back on the rails.

The proposal takes climate hypocrisy to dangerous new heights (or should it be lows?).  Not only would it pave the way for more coal mining, it stands to unleash nearly half a billion tons of carbon.  Worse, it would do so by giving away our protected public lands to a single coal company.

That latter point can’t be emphasized enough.  The only other company that could possibly benefit from the loophole is currently shut down and has no plans to reopen.  This leaves Arch as the sole beneficiary, truly making it the “Arch Coal Loophole.”

The corrupt optics aside, while it may not be blatant climate denial, giving away our public lands to a coal company sure comes close.

The fact that the Agriculture and Interior Departments have even proposed the Arch Coal Loophole is troubling (after all, it means they’re already squandering taxpayer dollars for the benefit of Arch), but hopefully they’ll come to their senses and change course.

In the meantime, check out this video to see what’s at stake on the ground in western Colorado.  It’s a few years old, but as fresh as ever.  Enjoy!

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?

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.

No Thank You for your Comment

[Editor’s Note:  Read the latest ClimateWest update on this post here.]

It’s bad enough the U.S. Forest Service has greenlighted the expansion of a western Colorado coal mine into an undeveloped roadless area, now the Agency is lobbing contemptuous insults at the public.

Take this gem of a response from the Forest Service to somebody who expressed concerns that the, “Lease modification area is one of the best deer and elk hunting areas and would be destroyed by mining coal”:

Fall big game hunting season opportunities don‘t exactly scream of protecting deer or elk habitat as they are being chased out of it. We also believe that if you‘ve hunted this area, you‘ve probably accessed it using roads or trails associated with coal exploration or mining.

In other words, Mr. Public, the Forest Service could care less about your hunting concerns.

The venomous responses were published on pages 151-167 of an Environmental Assessment posted online on November 8 in which the Agency justified its decision to allow Arch coal to expand its West Elk coal mine into the Sunset Trail roadless area. And although the mine is underground, to get the coal, Arch plans to construct 6.5 miles of new road and 48 methane drainage drainage wells.

What is a methane drainage well? It’s basically a natural gas well, except that all the gas that these wells produce is just blown into the air. In other words, to get the coal, they first need to punch a natural gas well field into the Sunset Trail roadless area.

To say the least, the damage is a disgraceful use of public lands, especially considering the waste. Every year, the West Elk coal mine vents 7 million cubic feet of methane daily, enough to heat 34,000 homes a year. To really visualize the problem, check out our pictures of methane venting going on right now above the West Elk mine.

To boot, methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Over a 20 year period, it has 56 times the heat trapping ability of carbon dioxide. So 7 million cubic feet of methane? That’s actually equal to 3.04 million tons of carbon dioxide every year, the same amount released by 540,324 passengers vehicles (according to the EPA’s handy greenhouse gas converter).

The proposal rightfully drew critical comments from the public, such as this:

Blithely allowing coal mine expansion in one of our few remaining roadless areas…will thoughtlessly damage a pristine area just so King Coal can make another buck, at a time when man-made climate change due to burning such filthy fossil fuel is patently obvious and should be avoided at all cost. Such thoughtless action would also promote polluting coal when America needs to be building a clean energy economy ASAP. The American people are sick of being put at risk just so greedy and dirty industries can do whatever they please to turn an outrageous profit at our planet’s expense.

And the Forest Service’s response? Well, read for yourself:

Well, Ms. Jones, unfortunately the American people love their inexpensive, reliable electricity. The Forest Service also receives nominations for lease for other forms of energy development for which you too are able to apply. Many of these will require commitments of land in Roadless because that is where the water, wind, and geothermal resources exist and which will also have effects on local climate, fish, and wildlife, and include powerlines, ancillary development facilities, and roads. Unless you live and work offthe-grid, please cut your total power consumption by 49.61% immediately (US EPA’s estimate of power generated by coal). After all, these efforts begin at home. We’ll worry about the thousands of years of radio-active waste from your home state’s nuclear power generation and mining activities on federal lands required to support it in your next modified form-letter comment.

All I can say is, wow. You can agree or disagree with person who commented, but for this kind of flippant response to come from a federal agency charged with managing public resources is a bit out of line.

Unfortunately, it didn’t end there. Take these comments and responses–some snarky and some downright mean, which are quoted verbatim from the Forest Service’s Environmental Assessment:

Comment from Member of Public

Response from U.S. Forest Service

Coal is filthy and dangerous. (p. 163) Coal mining is dangerous, there‘s no doubt about that.
Enough of Colorado‘s great wilderness has already been bulldozed, detonated, mined, grazed, and plowed. (p. 165) This area is not wilderness. Additionally, it was not brought forward as an area to be considered for further planning for wilderness as long as 32 years ago. Sorry to burst your bubble, this area has also been grazed for a century or more.
We are destroying more oxygenmaking forests to produce carbon dioxide making coal. (p. 164) Might be true if the aspen in the lease area weren’t dead or dying anyway.
Shouldn’t we be turning to cleaner forms of energy? (p. 164) Probably. No Forest Service issue.
I demand you stop playing lap dog to any individual, group of corporation that seeks profit from public land use when you know such use will damage the natural resources of my land. You sicken me Richmond! If you wish to stay out of court read: …With great disrespect. (p. 166) Mr. Artley, as a retired Forest Service employee, you know the mission of the agency is multiple use and that we consider issues from multiple perspectives. Congress, not the Forest Service, mandates consideration of energy development on federal lands which is in the “interest of the United States”. We also notice that the comments you’ve submitted are not necessarily in line with either Wild Earth Guardians or NRDC whose websites you used to submit two of the three of yours. Your issues seem to be of a personal or positional nature with the Forest Service and do not reflect issues specific to the lease modification parcels at hand.
Do you people do anything but sit at your desk taking orders from industry?? How is it that you don’t seem to have any say, will power, direction about protecting our public lands from thieves, muggers and greedheads that spell out “megacorporations”? (p. 167) We spend about 80% of our time implementing policy and maintaining the balancing act which is the Forest Service’s multiple use management goals and minerals management policy (this includes both desk time and field time). The other 20% is spent sitting at our desks responding to snarky rhetorical questions and comments from environmental and special interest groups.

Now could some of these public comments have been more constructive? Certainly, but that’s no excuse for the Forest Service to respond like this, especially given the significance of this latest coal decision.

And especially given that the Chief of the Forest Service himself has recognized that climate change is a significant threat to our National Forests, the Agency’s contempt of the public in this case is, to say the least, worrisome.

Perhaps these comment responses are just a cynical office joke that got a little too far outside the office. Perhaps. But perhaps they’re also a sign of the Forest Service’s real feelings about the public and their concerns over the future of their National Forest lands and resources.

Either way, it’s a shame. The public deserves an apology, but more importantly, they deserve better stewards than this.