Powder River Basin Distribution Legend Low Res

This weekend’s question may have no good answer.

On Tuesday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced plans to auction off 758 million tons of coal in Wyoming over the next few months.  Then on Friday, the Bureau of Land Management explained they will be selling off another 1.6 billion tons of coal at a future date.

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Salazar claims coal could play a role in the “clean energy future,” but that isn’t true, of course — except in an alternative universe where CO2 has a high and rising price and carbon capture and storage pans out — neither of which seems likely even if Obama weren’t now indifferent to serious climate action (see Harvard: “Realistic” first-generation CCS costs a whopping $150 per ton of CO2 — 20 cents per kWh! and Studyfind leaks from CO2 stored deep underground could contaminate drinking water).

The coal represents a staggering amount of future CO2 emissions, as Wild Earth Guardians, Sierra Club, and Defenders of Wildlife explain:


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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, further cementing the United States as a leading contributor to climate disruption … Salazar’s announcement is a stark contrast to his call for clean energy. Interior, for example, touted that in 2010, 4,000 megawatts of renewable energy development were authorized. And in today’s press conference, Secretary Salazar announced Interior’s intent to authorize more than 12,000 megawatts of renewable energy by the end of next year … Yet in opening the door for 2.35 billion tons of coal mining, Salazar’s announcement effectively enables more than 300,000 megawatts of coal-fired energy — 30 times more dirty energy development than renewable energy.

Carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from coal combustion lasts a long, long, long time (see  Fossil CO2 impacts will outlast Stonehenge and nuclear waste).  And that’s a major reason unrestricted burning of coal is just bad for humans (see Life-cycle study: Accounting for total harm from coal would add “close to 17.8¢/kWh of electricity generated” and A stunning year in climate science reveals that human civilization is on the precipice).

So this decision just makes no sense, though Grist offers one explanation for cynics:  Obama administration can’t wait to sell China all the coal it can burn.

This decision certainly eviscerates Salazar’s green street cred that he had developed by aggressively pushing renewable energy on public lands.  It fits into an emerging pattern with offshore drilling and the continued embrace of uber-expensive nuclear power and the abandonment of any effort to pass serious climate legislation that suggests perhaps Obama really doesn’t get it at all.  If so, it’s time for people like science advisor John Holdren to contemplate resigning and moving on to a job where he can do more good — like leading a national effort of scientists to inform the public about the extreme dangers of burning all that coal.

What do you think?