THE BLOG
04/01/2011 02:22 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2011

Powder River Basin: The New Energy Frontier?

Last week the Secretary of Interior, Ken Salazar announced plans to open up 7,400 acres of federal land in Wyoming's coal-rich Powder River Basin for lease to coal mining companies, including Peabody Coal and Arch Coal. This first round of leases are among over a dozen tracts to be auctioned over the next three years.

This announcement stands in stark contrast to the kind of "new energy frontier" that Salazar described in his speech to the thousands of youth attending Power Shift 2009, the youth climate conference that welcomed in a new presidential administration. I was one of the youth in that crowd, filled with idealism and excitement for what seemed to be the dawning of a new clean energy future. Two years later, this speech not only feels like a dream, but a ruse.

This decision is disguised as an effort to promote job growth and American energy security, but in reality is a result of the concerted efforts of the world's largest coal companies seeking to expand their profits by shipping U.S coal overseas for Asian consumption.

The expanding frontier of western coal production has already begun; currently, 70-80 trains leave the Powder River Basin daily, shipping out the equivalent of 40% of total annual U.S coal consumption. According to Salazar, "Coal is a critical component of America's comprehensive energy portfolio as well as Wyoming's economy."

But in reality, the coal industry currently accounts for less than 3% of total Wyoming workforce, and hundreds of tons of this coal will be exported to China of coal annually to countries like China, South Korea, India, and Japan. Counter-intuitive to all the energy security rhetoric, US coal exports have seen a massive jump over the past six years, growing nearly 71% between 2004 and 2010.

Not only is this enterprise encroaching upon Wyoming communities; in Washington, several energy companies are pursuing permits to build coal ports, to transport this coal overseas. Two proposed coal port sites in particular are undergoing controversial permitting processes.

Millennium Bulk Terminals, a joint venture between Arch Coal and Ambre Energy, is currently pursuing a coal port site in Longview, Washington. Millennium recently announced it would withdraw its current permit and reapply after being caught reporting an expected 5 million tons of coal exports annually, 15 times less than internally discussed amount of 80 million tons. While this site would likely be a major provider for China's coal imports, estimates show it would provide fewer than 70 jobs to the community.

The other major coal port currently being considered is the Cherry Point terminal in Bellingham, Washington. If approved, this site would haul as much as 48 million tons of coal annually, 3% of which is likely to get displaced in the soil, air, and rivers of surrounding towns and wildlife sanctuaries.

While the estimated job opportunities of these ports are slight, they expected impact on human health is certain to be significant; coal dust pollution is shown to cause emphysema, bronchitis, and black lung. The coal burned abroad will come back to us as mercury pollution that shows up in the air, fish, and water across the West coast, and is the major source of the smog that hangs over Los Angeles.

Secretary Salazar's announcement to open up the Powder River Basin might be considered part of the Obama Administration's "all of the above" energy approach, but it is mostly certainly not what I nor the thousands of other youth envisioned when Secretary Salazar spoke to us about the "new energy frontier" that would "resurrect the treasured landscape of America" and reduce our dependence on "fossil fuels that are warming our planet and frying our communities."

Secretary Salazar, two years after your inspiring speech, I must ask: how will America embark upon this new energy frontier when we're promoting backwards policies that not only prolong the use of coal as the status quo in the U.S, but further enable dirty and destructive energy habits abroad? This westward expansion will not open a new energy frontier, but rather, will protract an old addiction to dirty energy. It will not resurrect, but will instead degrade, those treasured American landscapes, sending coal dust into the air, water, and soil of communities from Wyoming to Washington. And, when nearly half of the world's greenhouse gases come from coal, it certainly will not solve the climate crisis.