If there is a war on coal, Casper was its battlefield Tuesday. The combatants — some 300 miners and ranchers, state politicians and environmentalists — descended on the Casper Events Center for the first of six public meetings on the future of the federal coal program.
They came clad in their messages. Cloud Peak Energy miners, bused in from Gillette, wore “Friends of Coal” stickers over their hearts. An organizer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council sported a “No Coal Loopholes” sticker. Speakers framed their messages in fighting, and sometimes apocalyptic terms.
“The faceless, all-powerful government agencies and their environmentalist masters are not immortal, so let’s ride out and beat them,” bellowed Travis Deti, associate director of the Wyoming Mining Association, at a pro-coal rally preceding the event.
Richard Reavey, a lobbyist at Cloud Peak Energy, likened the gathering to a Soviet show trial, one where the outcome was predetermined.
“All hands on deck,” were needed to address the coming climate crisis, warned Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians.
The official matter at hand was more mundane. Scoping, to use the U.S. Department of Interior term, is the process of determining the outline of an upcoming environmental study. Public comment is accepted to help define those terms.
But the bellicose language underlined the stakes involved in Interior’s study of the federal coal program. Roughly 40 percent of American coal is mined on federal land, the vast majority of it in Wyoming, meaning the government’s study has the power to reshape the U.S. coal industry. The analysis will examine the climate impact of burning coal mined on public land and determine how much coal companies should pay in royalties.
The Interior study unfolds against the backdrop of plummeting coal production and mounting concerns over climate change. Production from mines in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, where the majority of mining operations are centered, has fallen by a third in the first quarter of 2016, as a surplus of coal, cheap natural gas and new environmental regulations have combined to drive down production.
At the same time, much of the world has begun to shift away from coal. Last April was the warmest on record, according to NASA, the seventh consecutive month to break global temperature records. Some 175 nations signed a climate accord in Paris earlier this year seeking to reduce global greenhouse gases. China has halted plans for some 200 gigawatts of new coal power, enough to power Great Britain, which, in 2015, closed its last deep-pit coal mine. President Barack Obama, for his part, has pledged to cut carbon emissions by a third in the next 14 years through his proposed Clean Power Plan.
Duane Keown, a professor emeritus of science education at the University of Wyoming, addressed those concerns in his comments to federal officials. The planet’s climate has always changed. But where it once took millennia, carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired plants has accelerated the shift to a matter of centuries, he said.
“The pica, the pollinators of food crops, do not have time to adjust, nor do we,” Keown said.
But in a state where the coal industry forms the bedrock of the economy, his was very much a minority view. The mass layoffs at Wyoming’s two largest mines lingered over many speakers’ remarks. Many spoke of the benefit of high-paying mining jobs and low-cost electricity.
After about two hours of public comment, Gov. Matt Mead took the stage. If climate change is the threat environmentalists and the president claim it is, a national effort akin to the mobilization seen in World War II is needed, the governor argued.
“This administration is pursuing an unrealistic vision of a world without coal. Instead they should pursue a realistic vision that recognizes coal’s place in the world, and should invest to make it better,” Mead said. He concluded: “Coal supports Wyoming, Wyoming supports coal. Coal supports the United States, the United States should too support coal.”
The majority of the crowd then stood and, though they had been instructed not to clap or boo at any speaker, gave the governor a standing ovation.
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- On May 18, 2016