What really happened in Wyoming last week?
Perhaps we should ask billionaire coal hauler Warren Buffett, the "Oracle of Omaha."
Energy and climate analysts and Big Green organizations are still staggering around for an answer to the Obama administration's blockbuster news in Wyoming's coalfields last week to greenlight the mining of an estimated 750 million-2.4 billion tons of coal on public lands. According to environmental analysts, "when burned, the coal threatens to release more than 3.9 billion tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, equal to the annual emissions from 300 coal-fired power plants."
As Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar scrambles to explain his wildly exaggerated claims of the coal lease sales from his announcement, the truth is that this mind-boggling announcement comes on the heels of EPA administrator's proposed new rules to crack down on mercury emissions from coal-fired plants -- that will, in effect, continue the move away from coal-fired energy.
It would be easy to point an accusing finger at Salazar, the former cowboy senator from neighboring coal-rich Colorado who accepted massive amounts of contributions from dirty energy companies, and whose Bureau of Land Management quietly gave the green light for another 430 million tons of coal at the Antelope strip mine in Wyoming last year (within hours of the EPA's crackdown on mountaintop removal mining operations in central Appalachia).
But I don't think Salazar is the culprit on this Wyoming spring sale: President Obama needs to be called out for his less than transparent catering to his long-time billionaire and coal-profiteering friends.
Consider this: One month after jointly visiting Arch Coal's mammoth Black Thunder strip mine in Wyoming with a fleet of nine private jets, billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett sat in President Obama's Oval Office on December 14th and discussed ways to improve the economy.
As the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett understands the economics of coal better than anyone: He owns the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad that transports most of Wyoming's vast coal supply around the country, along with the utility company, MidAmerican Energy, which operates 11 coal-fired power plants, including four in Wyoming. To be fair, MidAmerican Energy also generates an estimated 2.9 MW of wind energy.
(Little secret: While central Appalachia tends to make the news for its horrific mountaintop removal operations and underground mine disasters, Wyoming is truly King Coal, and provides 40 percent of our nation's coal production.)
Plains Justice, a citizens group on the mining frontlines in the Powder River Basin, has long called the federal land leasing program "the biggest corporate bail-out of all." Clean Energy Action in Colorado has also questioned the growing and largely overlooked costs of coal mining in the Powder River Basin.
Everyone in the coal biz also knows that last week's spring sale giveaway in Wyoming has as much to do with a controversial and impending coal export terminal proposed in the state of Washington -- and geared toward Asian markets -- as U.S. markets.
Only days before their December meeting with the president, market analysts were abuzz with Buffett's and Gates' interest in the coal industry. One headline blurted out: Billionaires want coal for Christmas.
Well, looks like the billionaire's coal Christmas came in March.
Let's look at the timeline:
Nov. 10: Gates and Buffett visit Arch Coal's mine in Wyoming, and Buffett hails the trip as "fascinating."
Dec. 10: Wall Street is already certain that Buffett will continue this gamble on coal.
Dec. 14th. Gates and Buffett meet with Obama at the White House to discuss the economy.
Jan 6th: Wall Street analysts now say Buffett is betting BIG on COAL.
Feb. 15th: President Obama awards Buffett the Medal of Freedom at the White House.
Feb. 26th: In Buffet's annual Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Letter, he reminds all listeners that his coal-transporting railroads (nearly 300 million tons of coal a year) "will increase Berkshire's "normal" earning power by nearly 40% pre-tax and by well over 30% after-tax."
March 23rd: Citing the nuclear tragedy in Japan and world energy needs, Salazar opens 750 million-2.4 billions tons of coal on public lands in Wyoming, only days after EPA administrator Lisa Jackson cracks down on coal-fired plants.
Ah, the great game of capitalism and Big Coal machinations.
And the great dirty coal ship moves on.