A train hauling coal from the Powder River Basin heads north out of Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
As the pending decision on the Keystone XL pipeline dominates the climate focus in the United States, an even bigger carbon bomb is ticking quietly in a remote region of the American West.
Big Coal and Republican lawmakers are pushing to expand mining operations on federal lands in the Powder River Basin, which straddles eastern Montana and Wyoming and holds the bulk of the country’s coal stocks.
If they’re successful, railways in the Pacific Northwest will soon transport an annual cargo bound for Asian markets that amounts to more than 200 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. For comparison, projections for Keystone XL see emissions increasing by about 181 million metric tons per year.
If, as President Obama said in his climate speech, it isn’t in the national interest to significantly increase carbon pollution, keeping PRB coal in the ground should be a priority. But his administration has continued to give Big Coal access to the PRB, and has not addressed the proposal to radically expand mining from a climate perspective.
In Congress, scrutiny of the project has focused on the leasing program, which has been corrupt for decades and cheats taxpayers out of tens of millions. Senators Ron Wyden and Lisa Murkowski called for an investigation earlier this year, and the Bureau of Land Management says a task force is reviewing how the agency values PRB land. Ensuring that taxpayers are duly paid for a massive increase in dirty energy production is a small start, however.
On Tuesday, Republicans in the House held a hearing that Representative Jared Huffman called “a pep rally for coal,” painting the PRB expansion as the savior of the industry and depressed rural economies. “It makes sense to look at ways to increase coal production from our public lands,” subcommittee chair Doug Lamborn testified. “Workers in the Powder River Basin have a tremendous opportunity to benefit from the expansion of the export market for domestically produced coal.”
Also on Tuesday, hundreds in Portland, Oregon, turned up at a permit hearing for one critical part of the export project, a rail terminal proposed by Ambre Energy at the Port of Morrow in Boardman. Six of these export terminals have been put forward in Oregon and Washington; three were shelved after public outcry, and now coal companies are desperate to win approval for the final three.