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A major expansion of coal mining planned in Wyoming's Powder River Basin

March 23, 2011 |  4:02 pm

Powder river BLM wyoming credit
Vast coal reserves in Wyoming will be auctioned over the next five months, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Tuesday, despite the Obama administration's push to transition the nation's energy supply to cleaner, renewable sources.

The U.S. relies on coal, the most polluting of all energy sources but one of the least expensive, for 45% of its electricity consumption. Environmentalists have fought the expansion of coal leasing, citing its heavy contribution to climate change, as well as the effect of coal dust and toxic air pollution on human health.

The four coal leases next to existing strip mines in the Powder River Basin -- the largest coal-producing region in the United States -- total 758 million tons and will take between 10 and 20 years to mine.

Coal from the Powder River Basin used in power plants accounts for nearly 14% of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Scientists say such carbon emissions are trapping heat in Earth's atmosphere.

The Obama administration remains committed to an "all of the above" energy policy that relies on both renewable and nonrenewable sources, Salazar said. "The president also knows that we need to embrace and encourage safe development of traditional energy -- coal, oil, gas and nuclear," he said.

Mining companies began applying for the leases in 2004. They have blamed the BLM for unnecessary red tape, adding uncertainty to their business. "You need to be sure that there's a secure source of fuel for the power plants," said Marion Loomis, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Assn. "Even though we're going to be building a lot more natural gas, and a lot more wind, we're not going to be shutting down existing power plants," Loomis said.

Selling the coal will bring in anywhere from $13.4 billion to $21.3 billion, according to the BLM. Nearly half of that money will go to the state of Wyoming. "We need the energy. We need the jobs that come with energy. We need the electricity," said Gov. Matt Mead, standing next to Salazar for the announcement at a new, $70-million high school paid for largely by state revenue from energy development.

Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians, an environmental group, said the organization already is challenging two of the proposed coal leases in court on climate change grounds and plans to contest the others. "We'll be challenging Salazar's call for more dirty energy. It's the last thing this country needs or can afford," Nichols said by email.

The coal to be auctioned underlies about 7,500 acres, or nearly 12 square miles, in the Powder River Basin. The first two auctions, in response to an application filed by Antelope Coal LLC, will offer a total of 406 million tons on May 11 and June 15. The BLM will offer 222 million tons of coal at an auction July 13. Alpha Coal West applied for that coal to be opened up for sale. An auction Aug. 17 will offer 130 million tons of coal in response to an application filed by Caballo Coal Co.

Environmental analysis, WildEarth Guardians' protests, the change in presidential administrations and the large number of Wyoming coal lease applications submitted at the same time all played a role in delaying the auctions until now, BLM spokeswoman Beverly Gorny said.

Not all the coal may be burned in the U.S., however. Coal companies are stepping up exports of coal to China, and backing new ports on the coast of Washington state to ship the coal off trains arriving from Western states. West Coast environmentalists and community groups are mounting fierce opposition to the proposed facilities.

RELATED:

Battle intensifies over West Coast coal exports to Asia

Pacific Northwest phases out coal-fired power plants

Coal-fired plants continue to create haze over Western parks

--Margot Roosevelt, with Mead Gruver/Associated Press

Photo: Strip-mining in the Powder River Basin. Credit: BLM/Wyoming

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