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Reckoning Comes to Western Coal Country | The Nation

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Reckoning Comes to Western Coal Country

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The Black Thunder coal mine in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, 2012. (Jeremy Bucki

It’s Friday night in the “energy capital of the nation,” a sprawled-out strip mall in Campbell County, Wyoming, called Gillette. In a bar on Highway 59, the liquor bottles are backlit in neon green, and a bartender covered in glitter slings Budweiser Selects to small groups of big men. Various iterations of dudes beating the daylights out of each other occupy the television screens. The man feeding the jukebox chooses rock, never country. In Gillette, coal is king, and the cattle boom is long over. 

The man at the end of the bar, I’ll call him Mike, has worked in one of the mines south of Gillette for twenty-one years. He told me he makes $90,000 a year operating machinery in the pit. Mike doesn’t really want to talk to me because I “look like a liberal,” but he buys me a beer and lights up when I ask him about the “war on coal,” a staple of right-wing media. “Everyone in this bar gets up, goes to work, and we pay our taxes,” he says. “Why doesn’t Obama come down here and see what he’s declaring a war on? He wants to take away our way of life.” 

If the war on coal exists, this should be its front. Running from the Big Horn Mountains east to the Black Hills and up into southeastern Montana, the Powder River Basin (PRB), as the region is known, produces nearly half the nation’s coal, some 400 million tons a year. Most of the mineral rights in the basin are federally owned, giving the government a near monopoly on Western coal stocks and significant influence in the market. Once burned, coal mined on federal land in the PRB accounts for 13 percent of America’s greenhouse gas emissions, making it the country’s largest single-source contributor to climate change. 

If anything, the government is on Mike’s side. Federal policy—specifically, the way the Department of the Interior leases land to coal companies in the Powder River Basin—has propped up the industry for more than four decades, at great cost to taxpayers and the climate. Little has changed during Obama’s tenure. Since 2011, as a result of the DoI’s leases, more than 2 billion tons of coal have been extracted from the basin. Eyeing coal markets in Asia, companies are lobbying for three export terminals in Oregon and Washington, with the capacity to more than double the tonnage of US coal sold overseas. 

The real war is being waged from the Powder River Basin to the Pacific Northwest. On one side are Big Coal, railroads and a handful of labor unions, tacitly supported by government policy. Ranged against them is a coalition of ranchers, Native American tribes and citizens concerned about the contamination of their land from mining as well as the effects of sending massive trainloads of fossilized carbon to new Asian markets through their backyards. The outcome of this battle, in terms of the amount of greenhouse-gas pollution at stake, is arguably more important than the Keystone XL pipeline, the Canadian tar sands project the climate movement has been fighting so vigorously. Mike was right to describe the struggle in existential terms: the one thing the two sides agree on is that the Powder River Basin defines their future. 

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Russell Bell grew up on a ranch in Campbell County in the late 1950s and ’60s, when grass was the dominant currency. At midcentury, the basin was dying a slow death: gold, homesteading, cattle, oil and an early coal boom had all gone bust. Bell was an average student from a modest family. “There was no way, through agriculture, that I’d ever be able to go to college,” he told me. But about two weeks before graduation, he learned that a coal mine near Gillette was offering a full scholarship to a college in Casper. Bell applied, won, studied mechanics and at 19 started working in the Cordero Rojo mine, now owned by Cloud Peak Energy. 

Bell entered the coal industry just as it exploded in the basin. Beginning with the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency gradually tightened the limits on sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants, making PRB coal, which is less energy dense (you have to burn more of it to get an equivalent energy output) but cleaner-burning than Appalachian coal, competitive with reserves in Kentucky and West Virginia. Demand for coal rose during the 1970s oil shortage, spurring further investment in the basin. Between 1970 and ‘80, the population of Campbell County doubled. By 1985, Wyoming was producing more coal than any other state. Today, two mines in the PRB—Peabody Energy’s North Antelope Rochelle and Arch Coal’s Black Thunder—produce a fifth of the nation’s coal. Cordero Rojo, where Bell spent a decade, is now the third-largest mine in the country. 

Bell is proud of his work at Cordero. “I pushed myself to be better…. I just pushed myself every day to learn. That’s something the mines have done—they’ve taught a lot of people a good work ethic.” The mines also offered benefits and pensions, a lifeline for ranch families during lean times. “On an average-size ranch, you can’t make a living in today’s environment unless you’ve got a job off the ranch,” Bell said. “I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to have a ranch and live the lifestyle that I am [living without coal]. It allowed me the chance to dream.” 

Another Campbell County rancher, L.J. Turner, told me that mineral royalties put his kids through college. But on balance, he said, coal has taken more than it’s given back. “The coal people and the mineral people make such a point of saying they pay so much in taxes… Well, they don’t pay very damn much,” he grumbled to me when I visited him in August. A generation older than Bell, Turner raises sheep and cattle on land that his family has ranched for more than a century. Turner has lost several thousand acres of grazing leases to mine expansions, but his main concern is water. A number of reliable wells on his property have dried up, along with the creek by his house. Magpies, barn swallows, sage chickens and bullfrogs have vanished. He isn’t paranoid: coal seams double as aquifers, and mining destroys the water. “Roughly 30 years of surface mining and the more recent CBNG [coal-bed natural gas, or methane] development have resulted in complete dewatering of the coal aquifer in localized areas,” the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) acknowledges. At most, 4 percent of the land ruined by mining in Wyoming has been reclaimed. 

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