All Coal Goes Back to…Portland, Oregon?

Meet Pacificorp, a utility company that owns and operates more coal-fired power plants than anyone else in the American West and that happens to be headquartered, of all places, in Portland, Oregon.

Which is kind of odd because when I think of coal, the last thing that comes to mind is Portland, Oregon.

Nevertheless, with Pacificorp headquartered in old Stumptown, it literally makes this city the coal burning capital of the American West.  It’s quite a distinction, especially for a  city that’s normally known for being the greenest in the country.

For those who don’t know Pacificorp, the company owns all or portions of 11 coal-fired power plants in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming.  Its total coal-fired electric generating capacity amounts to 6,781 megawatts, more than any other utility in the West.

Its coal-fired electricity powers a vast service area, including portions of California, Idaho, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.  And even though the company has other sources of electricity, including hydro and wind, coal dominates the company’s portfolio.  That means coal is powering Oregon, California, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah.

That makes the company’s greenhouse gas footprint enormous.  Nearly 50 million tons of carbon dioxide, to be exact (based on EPA data for 2010).  That’s more than five times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced in Oregon in 2007.   Check out the table below.

Plant State Ownership Share (%) Total CO2 (tons)
Colstrip MT 7 1,311,327
Wyodak WY 100 3,199,281
Dave Johnston WY 100 5,992,189
Jim Bridger WY 66 10,743,842
Naughton WY 100 5,882,446
Hayden CO 17 700,187
Craig CO 19 2,041,915
Carbon UT 100 1,473,621
Hunter UT 85 8,349,312
Huntington UT 100 6,252,135
Cholla AZ 39 3,213,406
 TOTAL 49,159,661

What’s more, the company is a subsidiary of MidAmerican Holdings, which is owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway.  Buffet’s connection to Pacificorp’s western coal shadow isn’t much of a surprise, but it is increasingly odd given recent statements he made supporting a major ramp up in renewable energy development.

Making matters worse, Pacificorp is fighting to keep its coal plants alive, even despite growing costs.  And that’s where the real rub comes into play.  It’s one thing to own or operate an old coal-fired power plant.  It’s another thing to fight to keep it open as long as possible, environmental impacts be damned.

See for yourself what Pacificorp’s coal shadow looks like, check out our Google map below for more information on the company’s coal-fired power plants, some of WildEarth Guardians’ efforts to confront these coal plants, and links to other helpful websites, like SourceWatch’s amazing database of coal and coal-related information.  This map is also on our Pacificorp Coal-fired Power Plant map page.

In the meantime, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the key to confronting greenhouse gas emissions in the West is to tackle Pacificorp.  Whether in Portland or in Denver, Wyoming or California, we can’t make meaningful progress to safeguard the climate without taking on this company’s coal.

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.


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.

The American West, Fueling Global Warming

In case you haven’t seen it, High Country News shows us the link between the biggest greenhouse gas emitters in the United States and the American West. Check out the image below, and click on it to visit their website and learn more.

The irony in all this? As High Country News explains:

And though our region’s inhabitants feel fewer of the impacts of burning it, we’re not in the clear: Already-arid Western regions will become disproportionally drier than the more verdant East as a result of climate change.

Even more ironic is that American West has the greatest potential for renewable energy development in the nation (just check out our solar potential).

I like to look at it as an opportunity, though. It’s not often the source of such a big problem holds both the greatest incentive to solve the it and the tools to actually solve it. That’s a recipe for big and bold change. Only question is, will the West rise to the challenge? From my perspective, we can’t afford not to.

Moving Beyond Coal Exports

Those who know me know that I’m pretty skeptical about all the hype over coal exports.

While it’s true that exports have increased, the vast (and I mean vast) majority of coal mined in the U.S. is still burned in this country.  In fact, the latest from the Energy Information Administration shows that in 2011, it’s likely we’ll have exported a record 100 million tons of coal (see the image below on coal exports from the EIA).  But even this record will be less than 10% of the more than one billion tons of coal produced in 2011.

Put another way, more than 90% of our coal–that’s more than 900 million tons–is still burned in our own backyard.

Put yet another way, it means that if we’re serious about confronting coal and global warming in this country, then we should look no further than our doorstep.

Despite this, I admit I’m feeling a bit more uneasy these days.  I’m beginning to believe there’s some truth to the hype.

Because the hype in this case isn’t just coming from disgruntled enviros in Portland and Seattle.  It’s coming from Arch Coal, from Peabody Energy, and from pretty much about every company that has anything to do with the coal business.  Take some of the latest news:

This is just the news so far in 2012, a little more than 25 days into the new year.  Suffice it to say, everybody in the coal industry seems to believe that exports are the next big thing and many seem willing to put their money where their mouth is.

The bottomline is, as companies continue to recognize that coal use in the U.S. is on the decline (Peabody says by 5% in 2011, a trend that’s likely to continue), the push will be to capitalize on exports.

For those of us who measure our progress in confronting global warming based on how much less coal we’re burning, that means we face the prospect of making little to no progress in the coming years.  The fire may move from our backyard to our global neighbors’ backyards, but we’re still stoking the flames.

Yet, while I’m warming up to the fact that coal exports are a problem, I’m also realizing that it, in reality, it doesn’t matter.

You heard me.  Who cares.

Far from my skepticism retreating to apathy, I say this because because the fact is, although coal exports are an issue, the solution has nothing to do with exports.  Our real problem is production.

Take the Powder River Basin of Montana Wyoming, for example.  In 2010, the region produced 43% of the nation’s coal, more than any other region in the U.S.  Although  companies in the region are increasingly revving up their export plans, the vast majority of the coal is still burned in our own coal-fired power plants.  And ultimately, no matter where the coal goes, the end result is the same–it gets burned.

Which raises the question, if coal burning is what we’re first and foremost concerned with, why is so much energy being focused on coal exports?

Because the reality is, if we can start to meaningfully scale back production in the Powder River Basin, or elsewhere in the U.S. for that matter, we can slow or even stop the burn, whether it happens here or abroad.  If we can go to the root of the problem, then we can really start to make progress.

Take the federal government’s latest plans to auction off nearly 7 billion tons of coal in the Powder River Basin.  Right now, WildEarth Guardians is fighting to thwart these plans and keep companies like Arch and Peabody from amassing decades more of coal supply.

If we win in overturning one, some, or even all of these new leases, then any export plans start becoming irrelevant.  And more importantly, we can have an effect on domestic coal burning, which of course, despite downward trends, is still the biggest problem on our plate here in the U.S.

That’s not to say all the fights over new ports, rail lines, or other export issues aren’t important.  It’s just that in the end, they won’t be hardly enough to keep the coal in the ground, and in the end, winning the fight against global warming will take keeping coal in the ground.

Even The Economist notes in its latest edition that while exports are on the rise, coal is on the decline on the U.S.   The message here is that targeting exports, even though they are problematic, promises limited progress, at best.

To keep coal on the decline, or even hasten its end, we have to strike at the heart that is production.

Fixing a Fossil Fuel Fiasco in the Forest

Amidst all the well-founded uproar over the Bureau of Land Management’s proposal to lease 30,000 acres of the North Fork Valley of western Colorado for oil and gas drilling, WildEarth Guardians has taken aim at another fossil fuel fiasco: an expansion of one of Colorado’s largest coal mines.

In an appeal filed late last week with the help of Earthjustice attorney extraordinnaire, Ted Zukoski, we joined a host of other groups in challenging the U.S. Forest Service’s November decision to allow Arch Coal to expand its West Elk coal mine.

There’s nothing good to be said about this coal mine expansion. Not only does it authorize the drilling of 48 methane drainage wells and the venting of 7.5 million cubic feet of natural gas daily, but it allows these wells to be drilled on 1,700 acres of the Sunset Trail Roadless Area, effectively disqualifying the 5,880 acre area from any future protection.

Although the decision authorizes the expansion of an underground coal mine, what it literally authorizes is the drilling of a natural gas field in a beautifully undisturbed and ecologically valuable forest (not familiar with the impacts of methane drainage wells? check out some pictures here).

It’s government waste and disregard at its worst. And the Forest Service has not only defended its decision, it’s overtly insulted anyone who would dare oppose the proposal.

But what’s really disappointing is the duplicity. That while the Forest Service readily admits and recognizes that climate change is a major threat to our nation’s forests, it eagerly approved this latest coal lease modification even though it will inevitably lead to the release of millions of tons of carbon dioxide.

Their decision authorize the mining of 10.1 million tons of coal, which when burned will release more than 15 million tons of carbon dioxide. On top of that, the Forest Service estimates the inevitable methane venting will release the equivalent of more than 500,000 tons of carbon dioxide.

The Forest Service’s response to all of this? Unbelievably, it’s to blame you and me. Read for yourself the Agency’s attempt to explain that the CO2 created by breathing and computer use somehow release more carbon dioxide methane venting and coal combustion authorized by their decision:

A comment was received asking for meaningful equivalents of the greenhouse gases released. For comparison with this amount of coal mined, each person exhales about 0.36 tonnes of CO2 per year and an average automobile releases about 5 to 8 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year. The amount of CO2 emissions from sending 32,002 email form letters on this project based on average energy (generated by coal) used by computers (and assuming their owners only had their computer on for 1 hour) and the agencies having to access, file and make them part of the project record is anywhere from 9-66 tonnes of CO2 released. However we know this is unrealistic, most of us have the computer on for 8 hours per day, up to 365 days per year. This would result in CO2 emissions from these 32,002 individuals of 26,280-192,720 tonnes per year. We’ll also assume that these people drive to work or have at least one vehicle per household for another 160,000-256,016 tonnes per year and that they are in fact breathing for another 11,521 tonnes per year. These individuals have released 171,521-460,257 tonnes of CO2 emissions in a year which is more than the methane equivalent of mining coal in the E Seam for the same period of time (see the Forest Service’s Environmental Assessment at page 51).

So much for logic and reason at the Forest Service. In the meantime, we can only hope that more level-headed minds will set the Agency straight here.

And who knows, maybe someday we can all turn off our computers and breathe easier knowing our Forest Service is actually confronting global warming, not making it worse.


Turning off my computer will apparently save the Sunset Trail Roadless Area. Keeping the area from being drilled for methane venting is probably more likely to save the area.

The Forest Service Still Doesn’t Care (An Update and Lament)

I wrote last week about the Forest Service’s less than friendly response to public comments over a proposal to expand coal mining into western Colorado’s Sunset Trail Roadless Area.

As an update, the Forest Service did post an “edited” version of its response to comments on its website.  Amazingly though, many of the same snarky responses are still there (see p. 160, for example, where the Forest Service still tells the hunter to go take a hike).

As far as an apology, however, it appears as if the public shouldn’t expect the Forest Service to offer that any time soon.  Although the agency was kind enough to apologize for the “confusion,” they only described their nasty responses as “regrettable,” but apparently not worthy of an apology.

So it goes for an agency that seems hellbent on catering to big coal companies throughout the American West.  Not only is the Forest Service bending over backward to sacrifice undeveloped National Forest lands in western Colorado for more coal mining, but now they’re also signing off on coal strip mining in the Thunder Basin National Grassland of Wyoming.

That’s why WildEarth Guardians, with the help of students at the the University of Colorado Law School Natural Resources Clinic, today filed suit against the Forest Service, challenging the “South Porcupine” coal lease.  This lease would facilitate the expansion of Peabody Energy’s North Antelope Rochelle Mine, one of the largest coal mines in the world, in turn sacrificing 2,000 acres of the Thunder Basin National Grassland and leading to more than 500 million tons of carbon dioxide.

That’s on top of the more than 11.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide threatened by pending coal leases in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, which is where the Thunder Basin National Grassland is located.

And this from an agency that’s charged first and foremost with protecting public lands, not developing coal.

Insulting comments from the Forest Service are discouraging, but what’s more discouraging is an agency that puts the interests of coal companies ahead of our climate and our public lands.

100_3250Bear claw scratches on aspen in the Sunset Trail Roadless Area of Western Colorado.  Click here for more pictures of Sunset Trail.

The Good

Okay, now here’s the good.

In the last couple of weeks, WildEarth Guardians has taken some tremendous strides to confront some of the most significant contributors to global warming, including:

Also, I just posted a ton of new pictures related to WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program on our Flickr site.  Among the sets, pictures from the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming, pictures from various parts of Colorado threatened by coal mining, and pictures from our Fossil Fool’s Day rally back in 2009.  Stay tuned for more pictures!

And speaking of the threats of coal mining, check out our latest video on the West Elk coal mine and their latest plans to hammer a roadless area in western Colorado.  It features Ted Zukoski, a long time supporter and attorney with Earthjustice (check out Ted’s own blog) and some amazing wild country.

And for those wondering, no, I’m not going to post on the ugly.  Rick Perry does enough on his own.