07/27/2010 03:39 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Back in Humpty Dumpty Land

You might be pardoned if you thought that the Powder River Basin, in northeast Wyoming and southeast Montana, was a coal-producing region.  After all, the third line of the Wikipedia entry mentions that the basin "supplies about 40 percent of coal in the United States." Most of the Google images for the basin are of coal-mining operations, or maps of coal deposits. This town lies next to the biggest coal mine in the country, the Black Thunder Mine. John McPhee devoted a major part of a book to the coal trains that snake out of the Black Thunder to Georgia Power's Plant Scherer, 1,800 miles away, just north of Macon, Georgia.

But in the eyes of the U.S. Government, the Powder River Basin just doesn't qualify as a coal-producing region. Although it used to be designated as one, it was decertified by the Bureau of Land management in 1990. Evidently, the PRB lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. "Who cares?" you might wonder. The coal comes out, regardless. The land is stripped and destroyed. The mercury in the Black Thunder coal ends up in Georgia's fisheries. And the climate is being dangerously disrupted.

Well, it turns out the companies that produce Powder River coal have a strong affection for this peculiar reluctance by the Bureau of Land Management to call a coal region by its name. And you as a taxpayer ought to have a visceral desire to call a spade a spade. Because, in a officially designated coal-producing region, BLM must follow two important procedures that it can ignore outside such regions. First, leasing must be competitive -- to make sure that when valuable public-coal deposits are leased, the taxpayers get fair value from the companies that get to extract the coal. And second, the BLM must assess not only the environmental impacts of each lease but also the cumulative impact of the coal-leasing program for the entire region.

Neither of these commonsense safeguards has been in place in the PRB since 1990. Most leases are from a single bidder, which tells the government what it would like to pay, and where it would like to mine -- instead of having the government design the program and capture the full market value. And the government surely has no obligation to take responsibility for the overall impact of its leasing activities. Because, after all, if the PRB isn't a coal-mining region, then coal mining can't have a major environmental impact -- any more than BP needed to worry about harming the imaginary oyster-loving walruses of the Gulf of Mexico with its oil rigs.

You'll be glad to know that although the federal government has pretended for 30 years that the Powder River Basin really doesn't produce a meaningful amount of coal, not everyone accepts this Alice's Adventures in Wonderland notion. WildEarth Guardians petitioned the Interior Department to restore the basin's designation as a coal-producing region and, when the department failed to respond, filed suit in federal court.

But thus far the government's position echoes this famous Lewis Carroll character:

"When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."