The End of the Line for Federal Coal

Energy Environment

            San Francisco        One of the major, underestimated values of consistent work by community organizations is the pure and simple importance of persistence.  When I got the text from my son via his Apple news alert, I contained myself until I found the confirmation in the Washington Post.  It was true, after more than fifty years of struggle, that I’ve witnessed on the ground personally, it is now going to be possible to plot an end date to coal mining in the giant Powder River Basin, underlying huge parts of Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas.  I should quickly add that this will be the end of federal land, but a victory is a victory, and deserves celebration.

As part of my payback for being born in Wyoming and loving the West, starting fifty years ago I was lucky enough to get an education on the issues involving coal mining in the Powder River Basin while working with organizers and leaders of the Northern Plains Resource Council in Montana over a number of years as well as the Powder River Basin Resource Council, still headquartered in Sheridan, Wyoming.  The focus of these membership-based organizations of ranchers and farmers started with protecting the land of their livelihood, but joined with environmental issues around water, toxics, and more from the beginning as well in campaigns against power and coal companies over their expansion, pollution, strip-mining, land reclamation, and more.  Their work has notched many victories and, joining with others, is part of the coalition that can accept our collective thanks for this milestone in the fight.

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has released an environmental impact statement ruling that the impacts to land and climate are such that the federal government should discontinue any future leasing of permits to mine coal in the Powder River Basin on federal land.  The existing fourteen mines will be able to continue with their leases, which in Wyoming experts estimate might not end until the 2040s, which is still a longtime away.  Almost a quarter of the coal that is mined comes from federal leases in the Powder River Basin, so leaving coal in the ground will make a difference, regardless of the calendar.

Wyoming’s politicians and the mining industry are screaming like stuck pigs about this, but they “protest too much.”  They know this is coming despite all the moaning and groaning.  Coal usage in our power supply has dropped significantly.  The EPA earlier ordered coal burning plants to clean up or shut down, and many have.  The Entergy White Bluff plant in Arkansas, that we fought for years and stopped from running a slurry line from the Powder River Basin, is in the shutdown process now.  The bulletins from rural electric cooperative executives constantly plead to their members to maintain some mix of coal to protect reliability, but as my longtime friend and comrade Tom Sanzillo was quoted, times are changing.

“The nation’s electricity generation needs are being met increasingly by wind, solar and natural gas,” said Tom Sanzillo, director of financial analysis at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, an energy think tank. “The nation doesn’t need any increase in the amount of coal under lease out of the Powder River Basin.” Sanzillo said mining companies’ interest in bidding on leases in the Powder River Basin has fallen with the coal industry’s fortunes. The decision is “a proper market response to the long-term deteriorating position of coal,” he said.

It may have taken forever to get this notch on the belt, and Tom is right to put a market-spin on some of this, but that doesn’t make fifty years of protest less significant, our progress any less sweet, or dampen our hopes of more victories to come.