Climate Protection Just a Game to the U.S. Interior Department

Despite major climate progress here in the U.S., including a historic moratorium on leasing publicly owned coal, the Obama Administration is still frighteningly out of step when it comes to confronting the global warming impacts of fossil fuel production on our public lands.

In fact, despite mounting calls for an end to public lands oil, gas, and coal leasing, Sally Jewell, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, remarked that it’s “naive” to believe we should keep fossil fuels in the ground.

Perhaps the Secretary missed it when the President last year rejected the Keystone tar sands pipeline, saying “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.

It goes way beyond reckless rhetoric, though.

By all measures, the Obama Administration’s Department of the Interior seems to be doing everything possible to deny, dismiss, and disregard taking any action to rein in fossil fuels. It’s as if the Interior Department believes climate protection is just a game. How else to explain the agency’s response to concerns over massive carbon increases tied to some of its recent coal mining and oil and gas fracking approvals.

Take the Continental Divide-Creston Natural Gas Project, so named because it would let BP (yes, BP) smother a 1.1 million acre stretch of the Continental Divide southwest of Creston, Wyoming with nearly 9,000 new oil and gas wells, unlocking more than 12 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (and also 167.3 million barrels of oil condensate).

An analysis prepared by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management discloses that this single oil and gas project stands to unleash more than 8.6 million metric tons of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, every year by 2022. Astoundingly, these annual emissions are projected to continue for up to 55 years.

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Greenhouse gas emissions projected from Continental Divide-Creston project. You can see the analysis for yourself here on page 4-53 >>

8.6 million metric tons of carbon every year for 55 years is a lot. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s handy greenhouse gas equivalencies calculator, that’s the same as 2.5 coal-fired power plants. Yes, that’s right, this one oil and gas project will emit the same amount of carbon as the smokestacks of two and a half coal-fired power plants.

So what was the Interior Department’s response to what is admittedly a s**t ton of carbon pollution?  The agency had the audacity to assert that because it couldn’t model what specific climate impacts would result from the the release of the specific greenhouse gases, that it was “not possible” to even analyze climate impacts (see the “analysis” on p. 4-68).

In other words, while acknowledging the project would release as much carbon as two and a half coal-fired power plants, according to the Interior Department, there’s simply no way to tell how bad these emissions might be.

Never mind that scientists are sounding the alarms, saying that we need to keep more than 3/4 of all our fossil fuels in the ground and reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions by 66% below 2010 levels just to keep global temperature rises below 2 degrees Celsius.  And never mind that even a 2 degrees Celsius rise in temperature still portends disaster for many corners of the world.

It’s no different than a thunderstorm trying claim it didn’t cause a flood because there’s no way to prove that each of its rain drops was actually a part of the rising waters.  And just like those thunderstorms got a lot of nerve, so, too, does the Interior Department.

The Interior Department’s unplausible deniability gets worse, though. That 8.6 million metric tons of carbon? That’s just from the construction and production of the wells, it doesn’t even take into account the downstream burning of oil and gas that will inevitably occur.

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BP has already drilled and fracked more than 4,000 oil and gas wells in the 1.1 million acre Continental Divide-Creston area. Apparently unhappy with this, the company now wants to drill and frack nearly 9,000 more.

Once again using EPA’s handy calculator, the 12 trillion cubic feet of natural gas expected to be produced can be expected to unleash more than 656 million metric tons of carbon emissions. And like a cherry on top, the 167.3 million barrels of oil condensate can be expected to yield another 72 million metric tons.

When all is said and done, we’re talking more than 728 million metric tons of greenhouse gases from the ultimate consumption and combustion of oil and gas.

Taking into account the Interior Department’s own numbers, the Continental Divide-Creston project stands to unleash an estimated 21.8 million metric tons of carbon every year for 55 years. That’s more than 1.1 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases.

To put that into perspective, the Keystone tar sands pipeline would have unleashed 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon over its lifetime.  Remember what happened to Keystone?

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Much of the Continental Divide-Creston project area is, appropriately, located in Carbon County, Wyoming. 

Think the Interior Department’s baseless dismissal of the climate consequences of this massive oil and gas project is just an anomaly?

It’s not. In fact, we’re seeing the same thing come up again and again and again and and again (and even again).

Take the Trapper coal mine in western Colorado. Last month, Interior approved an expansion of the mine, which fuels the nearby Craig power plant. According to an analysis prepared by Interior’s Office of Surface Mining, the mining approval will lead the release of more than 5.8 million metric tons of carbon annually, both from the mining and the inevitable coal combustion (see the analysis on p. 5-6).

Once again, that’s a lot of carbon. To be precise, 5.8 million metric tons equals the amount of greenhouse gases released annually by more than 1,221,053 cars.

What was Interior’s response? Any climate impacts would be “negligible” (see the analysis on pp. 4-18 and 4-19). As if to snidely underscore its seemingly contradictory claim, the agency pointed out that 5. 8 million metric tons of carbon would be only “0.07%” of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

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The Craig coal-fired power plant. According to the Department of the Interior, this power plant, the largest single source of carbon emissions in Colorado, poses only “negligible” climate impacts. Photo by EcoFlight.

This response pushes absurdity to the extreme on many levels. For one thing, when it comes to climate change, there is no such thing as a single significant source of greenhouse gas emissions.

The largest single source of carbon in the U.S., the Scherer coal-fired power plant in Georgia, releases only 0.24% of all U.S. greenhouse gases. That’s how it goes with climate change. It’s not a small group of massive sources of carbon pollution that matter, it’s a massive amount of small sources that matter. Interior’s logic effectively denies this fact.

More importantly, Interior’s argument misses (by miles) the bigger context here. Because we’re not just talking the Trapper coal mine. We’re talking about numerous coal approvals being made by Interior that cumulatively add up to a major climate disaster.

Currently, the agency is weighing approval of seven new coal mine expansions in the western United States. Take together, these approvals stand to unleash more than 135 million metric tons of carbon, contributing to nearly 2% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Estimated carbon emissions associated with pending Interior Department coal mining approvals. Estimates utilized average production rates and EPA emission factor of 0.000931 metric tons of carbon for every pound of coal burned.

Mine Location Tons of Coal Produced Per Year (Estimated) Pounds of Coal Metric Tons of CO2 % Contribution to U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Belle Ayr Wyoming 22,500,000 45,000,000,000 41,895,000.00 0.59%
Colowyo Colorado 5,000,000 10,000,000,000 9,310,000.00 0.13%
Dry Fork Wyoming 6,000,000 12,000,000,000 11,172,000.00 0.16%
Freedom North Dakota 13,500,000 27,000,000,000 25,137,000.00 0.35%
Rosebud Montana 4,000,000 8,000,000,000 7,448,000.00 0.10%
Skyline Utah 4,000,000 8,000,000,000 7,448,000.00 0.10%
Spring Creek Montana 18,000,000 36,000,000,000 33,516,000.00 0.47%
TOTAL 1.90%

Add that to the fact that the Interior Department’s coal approvals are already linked to more than 11% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and you can see this pending mining really threatens to add up.

Add to that the total carbon emissions linked to the agency’s oil and gas approvals and you find that a little more than 20% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions can be traced back to Interior Department fossil fuel decisions.

That sure doesn’t seem “negligible.” One could argue this actually puts the Interior Department at the top of the list of our nation’s largest climate polluters. Negligent, maybe, but definitely not negligible.

While the Interior Department seems to be moving beyond outright, blatant climate denial, which is a positive sign. But playing games with numbers and reason in an attempt to avoid taking any responsibility for reducing greenhouse gases seems no different.

Sally Jewell may find it naive to believe we need to start keeping fossil fuels in the ground to protect our climate. For the rest of us who believe in and adhere to the laws of physics, however, that’s not naiveté, it’s common sense.

It’s time for President Obama to start enforcing some climate common sense. He truly needs to rein in Sally Jewell and his U.S. Department of the Interior.

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!

Why Keep our Coal in the Ground?

We know that 40% of our nation’s coal comes from publicly owned deposits primarily in the Rocky Mountain West and that when burned, this coal produces more than 11% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Now, we have a series of interactive maps showing exactly what this all means, why it matters for the climate, and why the Obama Administration needs to step up and do something about it.

With the help of our friends at Conservation Geography, WildEarth Guardians put together the story of our publicly owned coal, its climate impacts, and why we need to start keeping it in the ground.

Check out the maps here, or click the picture below.

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This is the first time that this much data around the federal coal program has been compiled, mapped, and explained. And it was quite the endeavor.

These maps highlight the role of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s role in facilitating the mining and burning of our publicly owned coal (i.e., coal that is literally owned by every American, but managed by the Interior Department).  Amazingly, though, the Interior does not have a centralized set of coal data to allow this kind of visualization.

Instead, they have individual coal lease records with general information, including some spatial data, like township/range/section information, and other data points. To make this, we had to transcribe the data, tabulate it, and convert it into a visual format.  Admittedly, it isn’t perfect. The maps show the general locations of federal coal leases, but not the actual shapes of the leases (or the actual lease polygons). Still, these maps provide an eye-opening illustration of where the leases are located and also highlight attributes that the Interior Department doesn’t even track, like carbon pollution and climate costs. Check it out!

mapping

Click on the map to learn more about the climate impacts of leasing publicly owned coal.

The maps tell the story of our publicly owned coal at a national scale, then at a Rocky Mountain West scale, then hone in on the Powder River Basin of northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana. This region is the largest coal producing region in the nation. Some of the largest coal mines in the world are located here, fueling hundreds of power plants in the U.S. and even overseas.

Check out the maps and find out if a power plant in your backyard is fueled by coal from the Powder River Basin. If it is, it’s safe to say the Interior Department is behind it.

powder river basin

Check out where coal mined in the Powder River Basin goes.

Finally, the maps illustrate where WildEarth Guardians is weighing in to make a difference. Our aim is to protect the climate by keeping our publicly owned coal in the ground. We’re doing this by confronting new coal leasing and mining approvals in federal court and building public and political pressure for reform. Ultimately, our goal is to put an end to the federal coal program.

And we’re winning.

Not only have we had numerous recent court successes, but last week several U.S. Senators introduced a bill that would reform the federal coal program and put it on the path toward keeping it in the ground.

With leading economists endorsing the need for the Obama Administration to consider the climate costs of coal leasing and even the President himself saying that we should keep some fossil fuels in the ground to protect the climate, the momentum is building.

It’s time to acknowledge our climate realities and for the Obama Administration to come clean with the American public. It’s time to come up with a plan to protect our climate and keep our coal in the ground for good.

WildEarthGuardians_Coal

It’s time to keep our coal in the ground.

 

U.S. Interior Department: Still All About Fossil Fuels

Even as scientists are confirming that it’s time to keep fossil fuels in the ground, the U.S. Department of the Interior continues to open the door for extensive coal, oil, and gas development on our public lands, fueling unchecked carbon pollution at belligerently reckless rates.

The latest step backward occurred earlier this week as Interior’s Bureau of Land Management just gave itself a big pat on the back for approving thousands of new drilling permits and offered to lease nearly 6 million acres of public lands to the oil and gas industry for fracking.

The Bureau was so zealous, they gloat that they offered drilling permits and leasing opportunities “in excess of industry demand.”  

Flaring on well in Lybrook badlands

Flaring, where the oil and gas industry purposefully burns off natural gas while producing oil, is the ultimate waste. Here, flaring at a fracking site on public lands in northwestern New Mexico was condoned by the Bureau of Land Management. Photo by Mike Eisenfeld.

In other words not only is the Bureau of Land Management meeting 100% of industry demands, they’re actually trying to give away even more.

It doesn’t end there.  Last month, Interior reaffirmed its belief that coal is an “important part of our domestic energy portfolio,” offering new guidance to make leasing and mining more “efficient” and “certain” for industry.

Certainly, the new guidance is meant to ensure the American public gets a fair return on coal, especially where it’s exported, and it is likely to spur higher prices for federal coal leases and higher royalties.  However, there’s an ominous omission.  Nowhere has Interior signaled its intent to ensure carbon costs are factored into the valuation of coal.

It’s a simple concept.  Carbon has a price.  If unleashed from the ground (in the form of oil, gas, or coal), that price becomes a cost borne by our economy in the form of the destruction wrought by climate change.  Those costs can add up, erasing any economic benefits otherwise reaped by the production and consumption of fossil fuels.

In the case of publicly owned coal, all signs indicate that carbon costs are, in fact, adding up and overriding any economic benefits.  As reported by our friends at Greenpeace, while a ton of federal coal is brining in $1.03 per ton in revenue, it’s yielding carbon costs of between $22 and $237.

Interior’s new guidance, while providing greater clarity and direction around the valuation of publicly owned coal, continues to turn a blind eye to carbon costs, filling industry’s coffers at our expense.

Ensuring a fair return from coal sales is certainly laudable, but the reality is, no return can ever be fair if it doesn’t fully compensate the American public for the climate damage caused by unleashing more carbon.

Now, more than ever, Interior should be exercising massive restraint when it comes to development of fossil fuels on our public lands.  Sadly, they’re not.  The list of new coal, oil, and gas projects slated for approval in the coming months continues to swell.  Here’s just a sampling of what’s in the queue:

And this is just a fraction of what’s planned for approval in the next year.  It’s like a tsunami of carbon threatening to be unleashed.

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55,000 acres of public lands are slated to be auctioned off for fracking in southern Utah. The prospect of more fossil fuel development portends disaster both for our climate and our public lands.

Of course, with Sally Jewell, the Secretary of the Department of Interior, actively advocating for more fracking (and even dismissing the notion that fracking should be banned or otherwise curtailed), perhaps there’s little chance of a shift.

If that’s the case, the Obama Administration needs to fire Sally Jewell.  After all, she’s the one who said climate denial has no place at the Department of the Interior.

 

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.