Obama Decision on Coal Mining is a Step Backward, Not Forward

Just two months ago, President Obama laid out a new path for energy in America, one in which clean energy and renewables would lead the way, helping launch – as Obama put it in his State of the Union speech - our generation’s “Sputnik moment.”

So it’s perplexing that the Obama administration last week launched the equivalent of a lead balloon, promising to set us back decades in our quest for a clean energy future.

I’m talking about the administration’s announcement to open up new public lands – our lands – to one of the biggest expansions of coal mining in recent history.

The Department of Interior’s decision to lease more than 7,400 acres of public land in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin to coal companies that plan to extract an estimated 758 million tons of coal is tremendously disappointing. When burned, the coal has the potential to produce an estimated 1.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide. To put that in perspective, that is about 62 percent of the total U.S. CO2 emissions from burning coal in 2008.

And that’s just the beginning. In coming months, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar plans to announce more coal leases in the Powder River Basin covering nearly 14,000 more acres of public land containing an estimated 1.6 billion more tons of mineable coal.

Worse still, the amount of revenues the leases will generate are well below market value, according to some estimates. But unfortunately, that’s to be expected. Ever since the Interior Department in 1990 formally "decertified" the Powder River Basin as a federal coal producing region - despite the fact that the this is one of the largest coal mining areas in the world - taxpayers have been shortchanged millions of dollars. The administration has denied a petition to recertify the area, which would not only increase revenues from coal mining but also tighten environmental standards and reviews. This latest decision to expand mining in the Powder River Basin only exacerbates what amounts to as a huge giveaway to Big Coal.

The massive coal mining expansion is one of several questionable tangents the Obama administration has taken lately while still espousing a roadmap to a clean energy future.

A day before the coal announcement, the Interior Department approved a new deepwater oil exploration plan from Shell Oil Co. - even as oil apparently from a leaky existing offshore well ominously fouled Louisiana’s coastline once again,  right on the eve of the anniversary of BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster.

And even as Japan’s nuclear nightmare continues to unfold, the Obama administration is requesting $36 billion in federal loan guarantees for new nuclear reactors, even though we don’t fully understand all the factors that resulted in the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station or all the potential dangers of our own existing reactors.

Are these the kinds of policy steps we really want to take to achieve a clean energy future? Is this really the sort of “Sputnik moment” we were expecting?