Yesterday — while the rest of us were focused on “individual mandates,” Obamacare, and the fate of the known universe as determined by nine robed elders — the fossil-fuel cash machine took a discreet turn of its crankshaft. A little deal went down in D.C., one that David Roberts wrote about here in Grist a few days ago.

In a nutshell: the federal government sold rights to 721 million tons of coal in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin — coal that is the collective property of the American people — to a private company, Peabody Energy; at a price that is, well, rock-bottom; under terms drawn up by that company; in an auction with only one bidder. (Joe Smyth explains the process here.)

Coal trucks in the Powder River Basin. (Photo by KimonBerlin.)

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Such a deal! (How good a deal? Roberts broke that down for you last month.) And just the sort of thing that is sadly routine in the realm of federal land management, where the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) presides over a process that’s far more about padding energy companies’ profit margins than protecting resources, getting a good deal for the American people, or even just plain old “managing” land.

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The market understands how good a deal this is for Peabody Energy. Its stock price is up.

Now, maybe you could justify letting coal companies rip us off if there were some public good attached to their activities. The government does and should subsidize all sorts of efforts that we hope will leave our communities more prosperous and cleaner and healthier.

In this case, of course, we’re blasting the landscape in order to haul toxic materials around the world so we can burn them, pollute the air, and wreck the climate. So forget that.

Something tells me the folks at Peabody and the folks at BLM were both quite happy to have conducted their business on the day that the punditocracy was otherwise engaged in parsing how many individual mandates can dance on the head of the constitution.

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On the bright side, at least we’ll have some federal help as we try to pay our medical bills in a climate-changed, coal-dark world.