Coal still king


When the BLM schedules the sale of coal leases, which give companies the right to mine federal coal, it rarely does so with great fanfare. But this time was different. This time, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar traveled all the way to a high school in Cheyenne, Wyo., and with Gov. Matt Mead by his side, announced yesterday that the BLM had set dates for the sale of some 758 million tons of Powder River Basin coal. And he promised that the agency would get cracking on a handful of lease applications in the pipe to mine another 1.6 billion tons of coal in the basin.

"That is a lot of coal," says Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians,  a Santa Fe-based group that has brought legal challenges against a number of new coal leases in the basin. "(Salazar's) clean energy rhetoric really falls flat in the face of the enormity of this plan."

Now Salazar has been putting some muscle behind that rhetoric lately. The feds got busy this fall approving a slew of solar farms and laying the regulatory groundwork for more. What yesterday's announcement seems to signify is that, despite its efforts to jump start renewable energy development on public land, the Obama Administration has no intention of abandoning coal. The lease sales just announced have been in the works for quite some time; getting them on the calendar didn't require a Salazar-headlined press conference. So it's hard to see his cameo in Wyoming as anything other than a political stunt aimed at showing the administration's solidarity with the coal industry, something the right has become quite fond of questioning. As The Hill's energy and environment blog puts it: "The Obama administration is seeking to highlight its commitment to U.S. energy production at a time when allegations of undue restrictions have become a pillar of GOP political messaging."

"It's disappointing," says Nichols, "especially from an Interior Secretary that's voiced more support for clean energy than any prior secretary." 

It all makes these words, written last fall by Jeff Goodell, seem quite prescient:

[T]he idea that the Obama administration is on a mission to kill coal would strike many energy and environmental activists as something like the inverse of the truth. In their view, the administration has been all hat and very little cowboy when it comes to the issues that really matter, like reforming mountaintop removal mining and limiting greenhouse gas pollution.

But the biggest irony is that this so-called “war on coal” has never been much of a fight to begin with. Despite all the talk about a clean-tech revolution, the dirty truth is that Big Coal is more powerful today than ever.

 Cally Carswell is HCN's assistant editor.

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