CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced plans Tuesday to auction off vast coal reserves in Wyoming over the next five months, unleashing a significant but controversial power source amid uncertainty about clean and safe energy development.
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.
Last year's Gulf of Mexico oil spill raised questions about offshore oil drilling and the current Japanese nuclear power plant crisis has renewed concern about nuclear energy, but coal has its own baggage – especially when it comes to climate change.
About 40 percent of the nation's coal comes from Wyoming, and coal from the Powder River Basin used in power plants accounts for nearly 14 percent of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Even so, the Obama administration remains committed to an "all of the above" energy policy that relies on a variety of renewable and nonrenewable sources, Salazar said.
"The president knows this approach is the approach we will embrace in the future. The president also knows that we need to embrace and encourage safe development of traditional energy – coal, oil, gas and nuclear," Salazar said.
The mining industry has anticipated the auction of the federal coal reserves ever since companies started applying for them in 2004. It blames the BLM, which is under Salazar's purview, for putting up unnecessary red tape and adding uncertainty to their business.
The executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, Marion Loomis, applauded the news that the auctions would move ahead.
"You need to be sure that there's a secure source of fuel for the power plants. 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 also will benefit Wyoming, bringing in anywhere from $13.4 billion to $21.3 billion, according to the BLM. Nearly half of that money will go to the state.
"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.
Mead said Wyoming has invested heavily in developing "clean coal" technologies. They include carbon sequestration – pumping carbon dioxide emissions from power plants underground – and converting coal into a gas that can be burned more cleanly than straight coal.
Salazar's announcement didn't sit well with environmentalists. The coal will provide 20 times more electricity than the Interior Department committed all last year to develop from renewable sources, said Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians.
The group already is challenging two of the proposed coal leases in court on climate change grounds, although there's been no sign that the auctions will be halted.
"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.