Wyoming reaches coal mining milestone as earth breaches 400 ppm
— May 7, 2013
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead issued a press release last week celebrating the 10-billionth ton of coal mined in the state, which is supposed to happen sometime in the month of May.
Another milestone expected in May: Scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego say that carbon dioxide (CO2) in the earth’s atmosphere will likely reach 400 parts per million (ppm) — a level last seen 2.5 million to 5 million years ago.
Sea levels during that period ranged from 16-130 feet higher than today’s levels. Scientists say that we must maintain a CO2 level of 350 ppm to avoid catastrophic climate conditions.
“I wish it weren’t true, but it looks like the world is going to blow through the 400-ppm level without losing a beat,” Scripps geochemist Ralph Keeling told the L.A. Times.
Meanwhile, in Wyoming, Gov. Mead wants us to focus on the successes of mining coal in Wyoming, and to do so without making any connections to what producing 400 million tons of coal per year means to the rest of the world.
In a press release, Mead said the 10-billionth ton of coal milestone “is a significant achievement for our state and country. … Coal mining has provided thousands of jobs in Wyoming over the last 150 years, all the while fueling America’s economy. … Coal has helped make America great because it is an affordable and reliable source of energy.”
Coal industry leaders joined the governor in marking the 10-billionth-ton of coal milestone as an occasion to tout Wyoming’s still mammoth-sized coal reserve, noting that the smaller mineable portion — according to the Wyoming State Geological Survey — is still large enough to sustain mining at large scale for the next 100 years. (Also nevermind the added expense and surface disturbance necessary to chasing coal forever deeper and deeper below the surface.)
The message, of course, is that Wyoming deserves to continue mining coal at current rates for the next 100 years. Coal and the shovels that dig it and the money it produces — those are tangible things, unlike invisible greenhouse gases and all of the nebulous effects of a warming climate.
There’s no denying the significant financial wealth Wyoming has gained from decades of mining coal. Gov. Mead and the industry point to this massive revenue base as evidence that mining coal at current rates is essential to Wyoming’s economic health far into the future, but they do so without disclosing the obvious economic danger; Wyoming is overly-reliant on a commodities industry that bends to the whim of markets and policies that are driven from outside Wyoming’s pro-coal borders.
The same goes for Wyoming’s reliance on natural gas — the state’s single largest source of revenue.
The prone underbelly of Wyoming’s over-reliance on fossil fuels was revealed this year when, with a stroke of a pen, the U.S. Department of Interior erased $53 million in federal mineral royalties from Wyoming’s coffers. It was part of the federal sequestration cuts, and the reduction in federal mineral royalties returned to the states of origin hurt Wyoming more — much more — than any other state because no other state relies so much on the production of federal minerals to buoy its budget.
So just where does Gov. Mead stand on climate change? Does he attempt to square his stance on federal coal exports with his policies and efforts to get federal aid for drought and wildfires in Wyoming?
To answer the first question, Gov. Mead was recently quoted in the Gillette News-Record; “The fact is, as I see it anyway, the issue of climate change, global warming is still under debate, is still developing.”
As to the second question, Gov. Mead told WyoFile during a press conference last week that a connection cannot be made between a warming climate and singular events such as Wyoming’s recent drought and wildfires. There was no acknowledgement from the governor that asking the feds for help with drought and wildfire could become all-too routine in years to come. What do drought and wildfires have to do with climate change anyway?
Instead, Gov. Mead offered a truism; coal will remain the fastest-growing fuel source in the world whether or not the United States exports more Powder River Basin coal.
“It seems odd to me that over 40 percent of (U.S.) electricity is produced by coal, that we’d tell other countries … we don’t want you to use coal and you cant use our coal,” Mead said.
Perfectly factual. America was once a developing country, too, and we choked our cities with unchecked emissions of pollutants that wreaked havoc on people’s health, shifting much of the cost of generating cheap power onto individuals who could not afford healthcare. It’s become obvious to many that Beijing and the developing world needs America’s leadership on innovation more than they need our coal and our Victorian Age model of burning coal without scrubbing greenhouse gas emissions.
The point is, resource-based economies (and every nation is a resource-based economy in one way or another) rely on sustainable environments. Dealing with catastrophic weather events and a rapidly-changing environment is hardly good business for America’s future in exports.
Developing countries might also do themselves a favor to learn lessons from Wyoming about the dangers of becoming overly-reliant on fossil fuels to drive their economies. Wyoming’s leaders should, at the very least, put the same bravado they have for coal toward renewable energy and the types of energy efficiency that’s proven to boost all business.
— Dustin Bleizeffer is WyoFile editor-in-chief. He has written about Wyoming’s energy industries for 15 years. You can reach him at (307) 577-6069 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dustin on Twitter at @DBleizeffer
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