The Powder River Basin — A Root Contributor to Global Warming

The Powder River Basin is a geologic region that encompasses most of northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana. Nearly 500 million tons of coal are strip mined annually, providing 43% of the nation’s coal, more than any other region. This coal is burned in more than 200 power plants in 35 states.

Location Map Powder River BasinThe region contains the two largest coal mines in the world — the Black Thunder and North Antelope Rochelle mines. These strip mines produce more than 200 million tons every year, 20% of the nation’s coal.  Other mines in the east and west typically produce less than 10 million tons annually. The largest coal companies in the world, Arch and Peabody Energy, operate these mines.

Increasingly, companies are pushing to export coal from the Powder River Basin to Asia and Europe. New and expanded ports in the northwest and in Texas, and revamped rail systems, are being pushed to help speed this export rush.

Coal from the Powder River Basin is already responsible for 13% of our country’s total carbon dioxide emissions. This makes coal mining in the region responsible for more greenhouse gases than any other activity in the U.S., making it a root contributor to global warming.

Unfortunately, new mining plans threaten to keep the Powder River Basin as a huge source — both domestically and internationally — of coal.


Ramped up Strip Mining

Despite the link between the Powder River Basin and global warming, the U.S. Interior Department, which oversees the coal in the region, is pushing for ramped up strip mining.

The Bureau of Land Management, the Interior agency charged with managing coal, is in the process of issuing 16 new coal leases in the Powder River Basin. These leases, which give companies the right to strip mine, would lock in more than 7 billion tons of new coal production. Click here for a summary of the pending coal leases.
According to the Bureau of Land Management, for every ton of Powder River Basin coal mined, 1.7 metric tons of carbon dioxide is released. 7 billion tons of coal means 11.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide will be spewed into the air.

This is more than twice the amount of greenhouse gas emissions released annually in the United States.

Not only does this leasing portend more greenhouse gases, the prospect of more mining promises more air pollution, more water contamination, diminished wildlife, and more barren, unreclaimed land. Worse, much of this strip mining will take place on the Thunder Basin National Grassland, one of last best expanses of public wildlands in the northern Great Plains.

A corrupt leasing program is fueling this coal rush. Bending to coal industry pressure, the Bureau of Land Management has declared that under federal regulations, the Powder River Basin — the largest coal producing region in the nation — is not a coal producing region. This has allowed the agency to use a streamlined leasing process that gives short shrift to environmental analysis.

Worse, because of this regulatory smoke and mirrors coal companies, including Arch and Peabody, not the federal government, get to draw up their own coal leases.

Powder River Basin Coal Mining Damage pc EcoFlightNot surprisingly, coal companies create leases that preclude meaningful competition and facilitate the expansion of their existing mines.  Although coal leases must be auctioned off, in the last twenty years only five out of 27 lease auctions have drawn more than a single bidder.

The result is that coal prices have been kept artificially depressed, allowing coal companies to reap massive profits from publicly owned coal at the expense of our health and the environment.

We face the prospect of more coal being mined in the Powder River Basin than ever before. The threats to our climate have never been more significant.


The Opportunities

Coal mining in the Powder River Basin is almost entirely overseen by the U.S. Interior Department. And the Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, has stated that, “carbon pollution is putting our world — and our way of life — in peril.”

Clearly, we have opportunity to change course by holding the Interior Department accountable to its own promise.

Our aim is simple: to slow and ultimately stop the flow of coal from the Powder River Basin. To do this, we are challenging every single new coal lease and reforming the region’s leasing program.

In 2009, we prepared a groundbreaking report shining the light on the link between coal mining in the Powder River Basin and our nation’s contribution to global warming. Read the report here. Since then, we have followed through with appealing and filing suit over new coal leases, and have helped to nationally elevate this issue.

Our overarching goal is to expose the true cost of coal and make clean energy more affordable and attractive. By tackling coal in the Powder River Basin, at the root of the problem, we can make the difference here in the U.S. and beyond.

Working in alliance with our partners, including the Powder River Basin Resource Council, Northern Plains Resource Council, the Western Organization of Resource Councils, the Western Energy Justice Project, the National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, we are making progress.

However, in the coming years, we will need to be more vigilant than ever as coal companies and the government officials they support push for more mining at the expense of our climate and clean energy.  

Take our photographic coal tour here.

Check out our Google interactive map which details the coal mines and related issues and photos in the Wyoming portion of the Powder River Basin.

Photo credit: Wyoming's Black Thunder Coal Mine: EcoFlight