Take a Frightening Tour Down America’s ‘Climate Change Highway’

September 19, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedEditor’s Note: Tara Lohan traveled across the U.S. documenting communities impacted by energy development for a new AlterNet project, Hitting Home. Follow the trip on Facebook.

Wyoming is not short on scenic drives. You can hug the shores of Yellowstone Lake on Route 20. You can get caught in a traffic jam of bison on Teton Park Road. You can try to keep pace with the Snake River as your vehicle huffs and puffs over the mountainous Route 189.

I did all of those things this summer, but first I took a different sort of drive, which put the beauty of these places in context. I drove the “Climate Change Highway”: Route 59, south of Gillette in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. It’s hundreds of miles from the touristy byways of Yellowstone and the Tetons, yet what happens along this road in the next decade may well determine our future.

There’s not exactly a sign proclaiming that Route 59 is the Climate Change Highway, like there is for California’s “ Petroleum Highway,” along Route 33. It’s a pet name given by Shannon Anderson, an organizer with the Powder River Basin Resource Council in Sheridan, Wyoming.

The PRBRC calls for “responsible development” in the Powder River Basin, which encompasses parts of southeastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming. “I call it the Climate Change Highway because of the coal mines, the fracking, the coal-bed methane — it’s everything,” said Anderson.

The Powder River Basin provides more coal than any other region in the country, is home to one of the largest gasfields, and now may be the site of the next oil boom, too. The impacts of burning just coal from the basin make the area the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the nation.

Coal Country

To get to the Climate Change Highway from the cowboy town of Sheridan, I avoid the interstate and head southeast on the two-lane meandering Route 14/16. It’s rolling hills, grassland, ranches, and mostly sage dotting the fencelines along the road. Cottonwoods huddle by creeks and streams.

It’s not long before I’m passing through Clearmont and my truck is running right alongside one of Warren Buffet’s coal trains.

Around here the rails are dominated by BNSF—the second largest freight train network on the continent. It’s a wholly owned subsidiary of Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway and the former marriage of the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe railroads. Buffet’s hands (and checkbook) are dirtied with coal dust (numerous lawsuits have been launched against BNSF’s coal trains for health and environmental impacts), and BNSF also hauls diluents that are key to tar sands mining as well as pipeline materials. It’s fitting that Buffet’s rail network parallels the Climate Change Highway.

Before I get to Gillette, the self-proclaimed “Energy Capital of the Nation,” I pause at the Eagle Butte mine, owned by Alpha Natural Resources. There is a pull-out on the road, complete with a viewing platform where you can peer into the dusty abyss below. The coal hauling trucks and loaders that traverse the open-pit mine look miniature because of the scale—in reality, the wheels are about 13 feet high, but from my vantage they look like toy trucks playing in a sandbox. It’s a metaphor for our relationship with coal; too often we underestimate its impact when we’re too far removed from the digging, scraping and hauling. And maybe also when we’re too far removed from the burning of coal. And from the climate science.

As I continue my drive south of Gillette on Route 59, there are signs for more mines like Caballo (Peabody), Belle Ayr (Alpha), Cordero Rojo (Cloud Peak), and Coal Creek (Arch), although none of them provide viewing platforms like Eagle Butte. Fences separate passersby from the action and the dust obscures whatever views remain. (See an interactive map of all the mines here.) Occasionally I can make out the specter of a dragline, the massive excavators that can weigh up to 13,000 tons. I catch the outline of one on the horizon as I stop to photograph a pronghorn in the sage.

These “truck and shovel” strip mines don’t make for great neighbors, to humans or wildlife.

“The main problem is water depletion and air impacts, given the scale of the mines,” Anderson told me before I left the Power River Basin Resource Council’s Sheridan office. “There are 13 incredibly large strip mines in a 50-mile radius.”

What’s large? The basin supplies 40 percent of the nation’s coal, for a total of 400 millions tons annually. Half of which comes from two mammoth mines, Black Thunder (Arch) and North Antelope (Peabody).

Coal mining began in the region in the 1970s but it didn’t really take off until the 1990s, ironically because of amendments to the Clean Air Act that sought to curb acid rain. There is a lot of coal relatively close to the surface and the seams can be 10 stories high, which sounds like a mining company’s dream. But it’s also low-sulfur coal, which wasn’t a high selling point until environmental regulations sought to limit the amount of sulfur coming from coal-burning power plants. Suddenly, low-sulfur Power River Basin coal was in hot demand.

There is a good chance you live in a state that burns PRB coal—it’s fed to 200 power plants in 38 states. And about 4 million tons of Wyoming’s PRB coal is exported annually, although much more of Montana’s Powder River Basin coal makes it to West Coast ports. Anderson says some of Wyoming’s coal actually travels all the way to Appalachia and the East Coast where it is mixed with locally mined coal, or exported to Europe.

If the coal industry gets its way, hundreds of millions of tons more of the region’s coal will travel overseas. The prime vehicle for making this happen are Pacific Northwest export terminals, but they’re being fought tooth and nail in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. In recent years, six such terminals were in the works, but half have already been scrapped. Arch Coal CEO John Eaves told industry publication Platts, “I think port capacity on the West Coast is important, because over time we think more western coal will be going to Asian markets.”

Arch has a big stake in seeing more exports. It owns the basin’s largest mine, Black Thunder. When I passed by the mine, only glimpses of one of its massive pits was visible from the road (and my requests for a tour were declined). A sign warned of orange clouds from blasting emissions. Just down the road, I watched as empty train cars clanked slowly through a load-out facility, emerging heaped with coal, freshly washed. I gave up counting the cars somewhere after 100.

What was passing by was not just a good chunk of our nation’s energy supply, but a whole lot of soon-to-be pollution. Thirteen percent of our country’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the basin’s coal when it’s burned.

There are also other local impacts: diesel exhaust from trains and trucks, impacts to groundwater in an arid state, nitrogen emissions from blasting that contribute to ground-level ozone, and the slow pace of reclamation. Companies are required to post a bond before operations begin. The bond is released when they’ve completed the necessary reclamation to restore the land, vegetation and water after the mine closes. So far companies have been better at mining than reclaiming.

“Less than 4 percent of the acreage that has been mined has been released from final bond,” said Anderson. “That limits land that can be used by wildlife and for recreation and ranching.”

The flip side is always jobs. “Coal mining jobs are good jobs,” says Anderson. “You can get $70,000 a year to drive a truck and you can do it without a high school degree. The industry is strong and powerful and employs a lot of people. It doesn’t see the boom and bust that oil and gas does and uranium. It’s been pretty steady for 30 years.”

That’s true, but coal’s share of the electricity generation in the U.S. has fallen some, in part because of natural gas prices. Numbers from the first half of 2013 show that coal may have regained its footing somewhat, but either way, the natural gas market still impacts the Powder River Basin.

Make Way For Fracking

Where the prairie has not been blasted for coal, the Powder River Basin has been engineered for the extraction of coal-bed methane. In between the coal mines on my drive I can see the infrastructure: pipelines, wells and processing plants.

Much of it is derelict, too.

“Coal-bed methane is lesser quality, so when the price of gas tanked, CBM fell off the radar as an economically viable resource,” explains Anderson. “There are roughly 25,000 wells in the basin, about half are shut in.”

The energy market is a fickle thing. Now companies in the basin are turning their sights to more lucrative exploits like deep oil wells, and abandoning the coal-bed methane (and the infrastructure they constructed to extract and transport it). This is already after the industry has been blamed for drawing down the local aquifer by pumping more than 309 billion gallons of groundwater for CBM production.

Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling now allow for access to previously unreachable pockets of oil more than 10,000 feet deep. The night before I left for my drive I overheard a local at a restaurant telling a visiting couple he was going to hit it rich because the Powder River Basin will be the next Bakken Shale.

Having arrived in Wyoming after visiting North Dakota’s Bakken Shale, where an oil boom is well underway, my interest was piqued. In the Bakken the prairie has been overtaken by more than 9,000 producing wells, with plans for tens of thousands more. Everywhere you look are well pads that extract oil and flare gas into the air and trucks clogging the roads that transport oil, water, chemicals, sand, and equipment. Small towns are overflowing with newly arrived workers, many of whom live in “man camps” of RVs and mobile homes as construction can’t keep pace with employment.

The same fate may be in store for the Powder River Basin. Heading south on 59 toward Douglas the beginnings of an oil boom are underway. I can already see the drilling rigs and sites than have been bulldozed flat for well pads. I can see gas flaring from newly producing oil wells—torches on the horizon. Truck traffic is nowhere near as bad as what I saw in the Bakken, but it’s not insignificant either. Deer and pronghorn dart from the sides of the road.

I’m beginning to think the road ahead is not paved with good intentions. If Wyoming is any indication, the future looks like more coal, more oil, and more gas … when it’s lucrative. Coal’s days of dominance are numbered, but a steep slide may not happen for decades if we keep up our current habits. The biggest gains in new power generation are coming from renewable sources like wind and solar, but it’s still a tiny portion of our national portfolio.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Is there a different path forward? Looking to the top doesn’t provide easy answers. President Obama has stood behind the “overwhelming judgment of science” about climate change and declared earlier this year that the U.S. would cut carbon pollution and use less dirty energy.

Industry has accused Obama of a “war on coal” but if the President is waging a war, he seems to have no desire to win it. In the Powder River Basin the federal government actually owns most of the mineral rights and there are no signs yet that the administration will halt coal leases there. Even the system by which the government grants leases has been heavily criticized.

Representative Edward Markey, a ranking member of the natural resources committee asked the Government Accountability Office to examine the federal coal-leasing project.

“Companies mining federal leases in Wyoming and Montana are increasing coal exports not only because of declining U.S. demand but also because they can sell coal for higher prices in foreign markets,” Markey wrote in 2012. “Arch Coal told investors last year that Powder River Basin coal sold to international customers could fetch more than $20 a ton. By comparison, the company in 2012 contracted with mostly domestic buyers to sell coal from the basin for an average of $14.40 per ton… The highest price ever received by the federal government for a lease sale in the Powder River Basin was $1.10 per ton.”

The GAO is investigating the matter, as is the Interior Department’s inspector general. It’s not climate change or the worry about environmental impacts that are driving the concern, it’s that we may be getting short-changed.

The way it works is that the federal coal lease program goes to the highest bidder, but usually there is just one bidder—the coal company that asked for the auction in the first place.

“In the 26 coal leases the federal government has awarded in southeastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming since 1991, 22 have gone to a single bidder,” wrote Juliet Eilperin from the Washington Post. “In the other four instances, there were only two bidders involved.”

Because the lease program was designed to ensure there was ample stock of coal to fuel our economy, the government didn’t seem to mind giving away leases for cheap and mining companies made big bucks. But now that estimated reserves for the Powder River Basin are 25 years and the leading companies there are interested in spending that time trying to get the coal to more lucrative foreign markets, it’s irked some people in Washington.

The Powder River Basin Natural Resource Council and a slew of other environmental groups wrote to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell early this year asking for a moratorium on new leases. These organizations are concerned with more than just money. They wrote:

Between 2011 and 2012, BLM leased over 2.1 billion tons of coal in the Powder River Basin, unlocking nearly 3.5 billion metric tons of CO2 that will be released when this coal is burned. In comparison, EPA’s newest passenger vehicle emissions standards will reduce an estimated 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide over the lifetime of cars made from 2017-2025.

One step forward, two steps back.

This August the BLM put up 148 million tons of coal for auction in the Maysdorf II tract in the Powder River Basin and for the first time not a single company took the bait, including Cloud Peak, which requested the auction several years ago. Is it a sign of the times?

It may well be. The coming focus for resource extraction in the region will likely be oil drilling, with techniques like horizontal drilling and fracking aiding a boom. The Wyoming Oil and Gas Commission did not return requests for an interview but a report from the Powder River Basin Resource Council says the BLM anticipates 3,800 new wells in the basin counties Campbell and Johnson in the next 10 years. And each well is likely to take at least 4 million gallons of water each time it’s fracked, which means over 1,000 truck trips to haul in water and remove waste. That translates to more emission, groundwater impacts, spill threats, and when that oil is burned, more greenhouse gas emissions.

Is this the road we want to head down? If so, we’re in for a hell of a trip.

(Ed. note: You can view Tara’s slideshow from her trip in the original article.)

Tara Lohan

Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis.

Tags: climate change, coal mining, Fracking