Carsey Perspectives: To Dig, Or Not To Dig?
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Editor’s Note: Tom Haines, a journalist and assistant professor of English at The University of New Hampshire, has walked hundreds of miles across landscapes of fuel while researching a book about energy and the environment that will be published in 2018. He served as a Carsey School Summer Research Scholar in 2015, when he walked 50 miles among the open-pit coal mines of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. That on-the-ground reporting informs this analysis.
In January 2016, the Department of Interior announced a moratorium on all new federal coal leases while it conducts an in-depth review of the process by which coal owned by the American public is sold to private enterprise for harvest. Nearly 40 percent of all coal produced in the United States comes from federal land, and coal still powers one-third of the nation’s electricity grid.1
The federal coal lease review, the first since the 1980s, considers pricing and competitive bidding practices, but also, for the first time, the environmental impact that burning coal has on a warming planet. In announcing the review, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said: “We need to take into account right now the science of carbon’s impact on the environment.”
Ten percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions comes from burning coal harvested on public land. Nearly all of that, more than 85 percent, is dug from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana.2 Nowhere else does the U.S. government control such a vast deposit of fossil fuel. So as the lease review—and the climate impacts it considers—plays out over the next few years, the Powder River Basin, home to some of the world’s largest open-pit coal mines, looms as a policy frontier: Should this fuel box of America, which has sent coal to power plants in dozens of states for decades, continue to feed our energy appetite?