Sierra Club: Leave Wyoming’s coal and oil shale in the ground

— April 10, 2014

A new report lists the Powder River Basin coal formation and the Green River oil shale formations as among the world’s largest potential “climate disrupters.” The authors suggest that those fossil fuel resources must remain in the ground in order to avoid accelerating global warming to the point of massive human disaster.

Dustin Bleizeffer

The Sierra Club’s “Dirty Fuels, Clean Futures; A call for a national climate action plan that keeps dirty fuels in the ground” recommends that U.S. leaders take immediate policy action, including, “No issuance of new federal coal leases until reforms that increase royalty rates, set aside sensitive lands, insure public transparency, and fully assess impacts from all aspects of coal production are implemented.”

The report details how President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan to reduce the nation’s carbon pollution to 17 percent of 2005 levels within the next decade might be squashed by the development of Powder River Basin coal, Green River oil shale, as well as oil and gas reserves in the Arctic, and in the Monterey, Marcellus, Utica, and San Juan basins. It says Obama’s current “all of the above” energy portfolio strategy needs to be modified to drastically reduce fossil fuels while also making major investments to transition to energy efficiency and renewable sources.

“It would be a mistake to see this sacrifice as self-denial. In fact, committing to a future powered by clean, renewable energy will mean a healthier America with cleaner air and water, pristine coasts, and protected natural areas,” Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune writes in the forward of the report.

In a press release, the Sierra Club stated, “Coal from the Powder River Basin fuels more than 230 power plants in 35 states, linking the coal to 13 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and making it a prime contributor to climate disruption.”

“It’s bad public policy to allow coal companies to profit from federal coal subsidies in the Powder River Basin while Wyoming residents increasingly deal with drought, wildfires, and water shortages,” said Connie Wilbert of the Wyoming Chapter of the Sierra Club.

A new report by the Sierra Club suggests that continued development of U.S. fossil fuels will eliminate gains in cutting carbon emissions. (click to enlarge)

Wyoming’s fossil fuel industries — particularly Powder River Basin coal producers — have said for years that U.S. policies are in fact already putting a major pinch on their product.

“It is frustrating that opponents of coal are able to propose that moving quickly from coal is viable without having to explain the massive economic impacts there would be through rapidly rising electricity costs. Europe, having tried this experiment, is increasingly using coal,” Cloud Peak Energy president and CEO Colin Marshall wrote in a recent op-ed piece.

While companies such as Cloud Peak are in the crosshairs of anti-coal activists, others say it’s essential to partner with communities that would no doubt be devastated by policies to drastically cut the mining, transportation and burning of coal.

“It is going to be very, very difficult for us to make this transition away from fossil fuels,” Wilbert told WyoFile in a phone interview. “I believe it’s going to happen whether we like it or not … and we have to plan for that.” Wilbert said it’s essential that environmental groups make partnerships with leaders and communities in a state where coal supports nearly 7,000 jobs and contributes more than $1 billion annually to state and local governments. “We’re not just saying ‘too bad’ to you communities who are going to suffer. … We are very willing to work with anybody to put our heads together to find a fair and just transition for the workers and communities.”

So far, Wyoming leaders appear determined to maintain or increase fossil fuel development.

An aerial view of a large strip coal mine in the southern Powder River Basin (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

While Wyoming’s leadership touts tens of millions of dollars invested in research to cut carbon from coal and other fossil fuels, it rails against policies such as a tax on carbon — policies that many in the utility industry say are needed in order to bring carbon-cutting technologies from the laboratory to commercial scale. The “leave fossil fuels in the ground” messaging among some environmental groups falls flat with Wyoming leaders such as Gov. Matt Mead, who has said he doubts the science regarding man’s role in climate change.

In fact, the same Wyoming resources that the Sierra Club describes as “climate disrupters” are some the same resources that the Wyoming State Geological Survey recently described as a “wonderland” of energy potential.

Gov. Mead receives much criticism for doubting the climate science that places much of the blame for climate change on man’s activities. However, Mead also says he understands the realities of today’s market, and he understands that many factors that determine the future of Wyoming coal are out of Wyoming’s control. Along these lines, people in Wyoming are asking, what will a declining coal industry mean for Wyoming mining communities and the state’s economy?

Robert Godby, associate professor of economics and finance at the University of Wyoming, said that while Wyoming’s coal industry will likely experience continued market and policy pressures, demand for Wyoming coal will not come to a sudden, grinding halt. Still, “We need to know what we’re in for if these things come down the pipe,” he told WyoFile.

In 2013, Wyoming organized a summit to discuss coal’s policy challenges in the U.S. as well as opportunities to export Wyoming coal overseas. Consensus among Wyoming coal leaders at the time leaned toward advocacy of “market-based” solutions as opposed to federal regulatory or congressional policy. It’s clear that organizations like the Sierra Club are determined to push in the opposite direction.

The Sierra Club report states, “Over the remainder of his time in office, (President Obama) has an opportunity to: require all federal resource management agencies to fully disclose potential carbon pollution; not allow any oil shale and tar sands extraction; reform coal mining on federal lands; put oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean off limits; not issue any new oil and gas leases that require fracking until impacts on water, air and climate are averted and; stop massive plans to export coal and liquified gas to other countries.”

— Dustin Bleizeffer is WyoFile editor-in-chief. He has covered energy and natural resource issues in Wyoming for 15 years. You can reach him at (307) 267-3327 or email dustin@wyofile.com. Follow Dustin on Twitter at @DBleizeffer

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Dustin Bleizeffer

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 22 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. I don’t understand why you people insist on saying this is some kind of political propaganda, it doesn’t serve a purpose to push any favorable agenda. It’s well known that the extraction of fossil fuels from the ground is a dirty process that pollutes ground water. Shale is no different, mining the resource will require the destruction of a specific part of land, and since shale is so plentiful in Wyoming and Utah it’s likely that if this business kicks off it will deforest large portions of wild land and leave barren strip mines. I’d rather invest in finding alternate energy sources than desperately tearing our land apart to try and stay on top of such a fickle dwindling resource.

  2. A noble cause indeed, except it ain’t going to happen, not until people start turning off their lights, quit letting their cars idle all the time, single occupants in vehicles going to, and coming from work, by the millions and millions, idling in traffic four hour a day five days a week, quit buying water in plastic bottles, quit buying plastic “junk” made in China for temporary enjoyment, only to be tossed into our already bloated landfills.
    Not while there are billions in profits to be made in exploiting a resource that may be useful if used wisely. Now it is being exploited in quantity and not quality, burn as much as you can and as fast as you can, that is how they make their money,, tons of it!
    Like I said, it is the quantity, not the quality, in our own lives, as well as the lives of the corporate, they are just giving us what we want!

  3. To Young people
    the “magnificent special interest doomsday Science ” of the democrats vs. the “magnificent special interest doomsday economics” of the republicans. Can a lie become “Noble” ? Read Plato and Socrates or even wikipedia, but not the Sierra Club or the Tea Party.

    I apologize for my generation. We have screwed it up.

  4. Thank you, Dustin, you have laid it on the line again. None of our good, red-necked Wyoming Republicans will believe it or heed it but they will not be able to say they were not warned. Too bad.

  5. Great work. We are one of the wealthiest countries in the world. It is only fair that we leave a higher percentage of fossil fuels in the ground. 80% of all known fossil fuel deposits must be left in the ground if we have any hope of avoiding U.S. and global catastrophe. It’s actually more like 90% if you include plans to burn coal underground that is too deep to mine and extract the uncombusted gases which are released. We can and must go solar and wind as quickly as possible. Such a step will not mean a great increase in cost but besides preventing massive destruction including the desertification of our entire Midwest, it will also have great health benefits thanks to markedly reduced air pollution in our homes and cities.

  6. Dustin “climate disrupters”? love it new science or new and improved propaganda?