As a kid in northern Wyoming, I watched my dad dump a five-gallon bucket of Powder River Basin coal into the heater in our living room every winter night before bed. I'd lean against the stove in my jammies, enjoying its warmth while a blizzard rattled the chimney pipe. Though most Americans never hear coal clatter into the hopper of a stoker, they do reap the benefits of the electricity produced when it is burned.
About 22 percent of US electricity came from Powder River Basin coal in 2008, according to the Energy Information Administration, flowing into homes from New Jersey to Oregon. Production from the basin – located in northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana – currently accounts for about 42 percent of domestic coal and continues to increase. One analysis suggests the PRB holds a 400-year supply. Now, a coalition of conservation groups is trying to hold the federal government accountable for the climate change impacts of producing – and burning – all that coal.
On Tuesday, July 13 Defenders of Wildlife, WildEarth Guardians, and the Sierra Club sued Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar and Director of the Bureau of Land Management Bob Abbey to stop the proposed leasing of 400 million tons of coal in Powder River Basin’s West Antelope II mine. The groups argue that the BLM didn't adequately analyze the climate change impacts that would result, writing "When burned, the coal will release more than 740 million tons of carbon dioxide, the amount released every year by over 127.5 million passenger vehicles."
This lawsuit is "the first time the Interior Department has been taken to task over the global warming impacts of coal mining," says Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Program Director for WildEarth Guardians. "We need a future without coal at some point and we need to start planning for that."
During a visit to Wyoming last week, BLM Director Abbey noted the importance of considering climate change impacts when developing coal resources, and the for the West Antelope II coal leases describes how climate change around the West is forecasted to cause invasive species to spread, wildfires to intensify, and biodiversity to decrease, among other problems. But the FEIS forewent specifically analyzing climate change impacts of the mining leases, stating, "It is not possible to project the level of CO2 emissions that burning the coal in the West Antelope II Lease-by-Application tract would produce."
And earlier this winter, the BLM responded to the conservation groups by writing, "Since there are no tools available to quantify incremental climate changes associated with these greenhouse gas emissions, the analysis cannot reach conclusions as to the extent or significance of the emissions on global climate."
So does the lawsuit have a snowball's chance in hell of succeeding? "It's an evolving area of law. Courts are just beginning to take up this issue so it's hard to predict," says Professor John Leshy at Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. "It's a nice argument, but if the coal is burned, how much would it really contribute to global carbon emissions?"
Nichols notes that there has been a lot of pressure to regulate carbon emissions at the consumption stage, such as by putting pressure on power plants to operate cleaner, but says it's important to address the source of those greenhouse gases, the mines the coal is coming from: "We are going after the heart of the beast. If we can't get a handle on the global warming impact of coal in our biggest supply area, we have to start changing things," says Nichols. "Secretary Salazar has a real opportunity here to put his money where his mouth is."
Emilene Ostlind is a High Country News intern