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.

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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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Interior Department: Carbon Costs “Misleading”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE:  On October 6, 2014, WildEarth Guardians filed its statement of reasons challenging the Interior Department’s latest coal leasing plans in the Powder River Basin.  Among other things, the appeal challenges Interior’s completely arbitrary and unsupported assertion that disclosing carbon costs would be misleading.  The statement of reasons calls on the Interior Board of Land Appeals to overturn the decision and compel a rational and accurate analysis of climate impacts.

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.

Greenhouse Gas Cover Up at Interior

In spite of President Obama’s 2009 Executive Order calling on federal agencies to “inventory, report, and adopt targets for reducing their direct and indirect GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions,” our federal government is now trying to cover up over a billion tons of greenhouse gases that it is directly responsible for.

And the blame seems to lie squarely on the U.S. Interior Department.

That’s according to a recent report by The Wilderness Society, which found that the federal government has underestimated its total greenhouse gas footprint by at least 95% because it ignored emissions from coal mining and oil and gas drilling under federal control, yet undertaken by private entities.

The federal government’s estimate, which was prepared by the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality in 2011, reported that total greenhouse gas emissions amounted to 66.4 million metric tons.

That’s an impressive amount of greenhouse gas emissions on its own.  Yet according to the latest report, when factoring in all the coal and oil and gas production authorized by the U.S. Interior Department, the actual figure is actually 1,551 million metric tons.

That’s over one and a half billion tons of greenhouse gases–more than 25% of the total greenhouse gas inventory in the United States.  Completely ignored.

Not surprisingly, the report shows the majority of these emissions come from coal production overseen by the Interior Department.  The image below, taken from the report, shows the breakdown in emission sources.

The bulk of this production can be traced back to the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana, which WildEarth Guardians has reported is a root contributor to global warming in the U.S.

The Powder River Basin provides 43% of the nation’s coal–more than any other region in the nation.  In 2010 alone, the region produced 468,428,000 tons of coal, which was burned in hundreds of coal-fired power plants, leading to an estimated 777.12 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, a full 13% of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions (the Bureau of Land Management, the Interior agency responsible for managing coal, estimates that 1.659 metric tons of carbon dioxide are released for every ton of Powder River Basin coal burned).

All of the coal in in the Powder River Basin is federally owned, meaning the Interior Department was directly responsible for allowing this 777.12 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

Put another way, the Interior Department has a lot–a lot–of greenhouse gases on its hands.

And while it’s not surprising that such massive amounts of coal mining would lead to such massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, what is surprising is that the Interior Department would completely disregard them.

Because Interior Department officials themselves have recognized that not only are they responsible for these emissions, but that the emissions need to be accounted for.  As Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes commented in the Washington Post last December:

Let’s be forthright on identifying the full greenhouse gas effects, including those downstream…[when it comes to extracting coal in the United States] we know it’s likely to be used as a fuel, it’s going to be combusted, and there will be greenhouse gas implications to that.

With the President himself calling on federal agencies to assess and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, there’s no excuse for the Interior’s glaring omissions.  As friends at the Center for American Progress commented:

This study should serve as an important wake up call for President Obama and the leaders in his administration, both of which have made serious commitments to addressing the climate crisis and making the United States the world leader in clean energy development.  Not only has the president pledged to reduce emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, but Interior Secretary Ken Salazar stated in Copenhagen that “carbon pollution is putting our world—and our way of life—in peril.”

It’s time for the Interior Department to be forthright with its link to global warming, as Mr. Hayes says.  More importantly, it’s time for the Interior Department to stop covering up the problem and start coming up with solutions.

On Winners, Losers, and All of the Above

After the President’s State of the Union address and his call for an “all of the above” energy policy (actually, to quote, “an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy”), I tweeted:

 

I wasn’t kidding.  This “all of the above” approach to energy policy makes me cringe.  It’s a baseless and believes by mixing everything together, somehow we’ll come out with the best of everything on the other end.

The problem is, by mixing everything together, we rarely come out with anything good in the end (pancakes and sausage on a stick, anyone?).

And in the case of our energy, there’s a good reason for this.   It’s because an “all of the above” energy policy includes all of the worst kinds energy.   While my son mixing his sodas is gross, yet cute, an “all of the above” energy policy is downright disturbing.

Take coal, for example, which as I wrote before, actually costs our society more than the benefits it provides.

Or take natural gas, which scientists are increasingly finding can release significant amounts of greenhouse gases, to say the least about the water and air contamination it can cause.

And off-shore drilling?  Really?

I suppose “all of the above” makes for a good slogan.  Yet energy policy based on sloganeering is reckless.  It’s about as wise as making health care policy based on which pharmaceutical company has the hippest name for their prescription drugs.  That’s insane.

Which is the real problem here, that the President’s energy policy isn’t based on any rational assessment of what sources of energy really are good for our society.  It’s pure political pandering.

Sure, some would say that we shouldn’t pick winners and losers when it comes to our energy portfolio, but that’s absurd.  It’s like saying we shouldn’t pick winners and losers when dating.  Of course we should pick winners and losers, especially when it comes to something as important as our energy (or long-term relationships, for that matter).

In fact, I’ll take the liberty and help the President out here.  Below, I pick our nation’s energy winners and losers.  Simple enough.

Winners

Losers

Non-fossil fuels (e.g., wind solar, efficiency, conservation)

Fossil Fuels (e.g., coal, oil, oil shale, natural gas)

Tongue in cheek aside, I get that it’s laudable to want to keep all options on the able.  It’s like trying to spend a Friday night hanging out with friends at the bar and going out on a date.  Laudable, perhaps.  But perhaps not wise.

But what’s really bad about the President’s call for an “all-out, all-of-the-above” approach to energy development is that his Administration can’t even live up to this messed up ideal.

Take the latest decision by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to auction off more than 467 million tons of coal in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, which produces 43% of the nation’s coal.  That brings the total amount of Powder River Basin coal recently auctioned or slated to be auctioned by the BLM to more than 6.8 billion tons.

Even though the President was recently in Denver pushing for 10 gigawatts of renewable energy development on public lands, the amount of coal slated to be mined in the Powder River Basin would be enough to power 100 gigawatts–10 times that amount–for nearly 25 years (an average 500 MW plant burns 1,430,000 tons of coal annually).

That’s on top of the fact that every mine in the Powder River Basin already has around 10 years of reserves to mine through.  Basically, under the Obama Administration, we’re being locked into another lifetime of coal.

Putting aside the grossness of an “all of the above” energy policy, it ultimately just seems to be a euphemism for “fossil fuels above all else.”  This isn’t an energy policy, it’s business as usual.

It’s time to pick winners.  And it’s time to embrace an energy policy that includes all the best sources energy.  President Obama can start by finally saying enough to this country’s destructive dependence on fossil fuels.

Unbelievably, in the wake of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, President Obama has actually called for more off-shore drilling.

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.

Coal Continues to Take Ugly Center Stage in West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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