US Interior Department Fails to Deliver Clean Energy

US Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar likes to tout his department’s support for clean energy development on federal lands. But a decision last week to open 7,400 acres in Wyoming to increased coal mining calls into question how strong the Interior Department’s commitment to clean energy really is. If we’re serious about transforming the US economy to run on clean energy, expanding coal mining is a major step backwards. By flooding the market with dirty coal mined in Wyoming, the Interior Department risks derailing progress on renewable energy and will make it all the more difficult to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Wyoming already produces more coal than any other state in the US: in 2010 it supplied almost 40% of coal used to generate electricity. Much of this mining goes on in the Powder River Basin, which spans the border between Wyoming and Montana. Every day between seventy and eighty trains leave the Powder River Basin, transporting coal to be burned in power plants around the country. Since coal is the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel, mining in the Powder River Basin is a major contributor to climate change as well as emissions of pollutants that hurt human health.

Considering how harmful coal is to public health and the climate, why would the Interior Department open up even more land to coal mining? Construction of new coal plants is at a standstill in the United States—thanks to pressure from environmentalists, not a single new plant has broken ground since 2008. Meanwhile old coal plants are being taken offline as the health cost of keeping smokestacks running becomes evident. With clean energy sources like wind and solar power becoming cheaper all the time, the idea of expanding coal mining seems almost nonsensical—unless you understand where most new coal from the Powder River Basin will likely be headed.

With the age of coal coming to a close in the US, coal companies are looking to ship their product overseas. Companies like Ambre Energy and Arch Coal are seeking permission to build coal export terminals on the west coast of North America, to funnel Powder River Basin coal to the international market. While China and India get a cheap source of energy, mercury and other pollutants from burning coal will blow west across the Pacific Ocean and rain down on the US west coast. Carbon emissions from coal burned in these countries will of course affect the whole planet. The politically powerful coal industry has persuaded the Interior Department to come down on its side, putting our clean energy future at risk.

With enough wind energy for utility-scale production, Wyoming has potential to help transform the US electricity grid. Yet as long as coal remains at the center of Wyoming’s energy policy, it isn’t likely to get on the renewable bandwagon. Coal mining is a dangerous distraction from the clean energy solutions the US should be pursuing. By dumping more coal on the international market, the Wyoming and the Interior Department threaten to make the US an extraction-based resource colony for countries like India and China.

I can guarantee this plan to ramp up coal mining and sacrifice clean energy will run into heavy opposition in the US. New coal leases in Wyoming aren’t going to move forward unchallenged. At the same time, proposal to build coal export terminals have already run into opposition on the west coast. Those who believe in a clean energy future can’t afford to let the Interior literally auction away Wyoming’s energy. The stakes are simply too high.

Photo credit: Boss Tweed