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Buried among all the news regarding nuclear power (Japan) and oil (Libya) Tuesday was an announcement by the Interior Department regarding coal (America): Salazar announces coal lease sales in Wyoming.  Ken Salazar and Republican Governor Matt Mead together made bland pronouncements:

"Coal is a critical component of America’s comprehensive energy portfolio as well as Wyoming’s economy,” Secretary Salazar said in making his announcement with Wyoming Governor Matt Mead. “As the number one coal producer from public lands, Wyoming provided nearly 40 percent of the domestic coal used to generate electricity last year and it’s important that we continue to encourage safe production of this important resource.”

This is a massive expansion of domestic coal production - probably comparable to Obama's ill-fated equally massive expansion of offshore oil drilling, but receiving far less attention from mainstream media.  And Salazar's effort to spin the expansion as "cleaner" coal emitting less greenhouse gases are simply false.

First, how big an expansion is this? The four tracts put up for bid represent 7,441 acres containing an estimated 758 million tons of coal. In addition, over the next few months the BLM will auction off another 13,966 acres containing another 1.6 billion tons of coal. Currently, the region has about 12 mines supplying 400 million tons of coal per year.

Salazar paid lip service to environmental concerns: "The Basin’s coal contains 15 times less sulfur that eastern coal, so it burns relatively cleaner, releasing fewer greenhouse emissions." Sub-bituminous Powder River Basin coal (compared to Appalachian bituminous coal), is far less likely to contribute to acid rain.  However, Salazar is flatly wrong regarding greenhouse gas emissions.  Sub-bituminous coal emits more carbon dioxide than bituminous coal. Wikipedia quantifies: 117 lbs/million BTUs for natgas, 156 lbs/million BTUs for automobile gasoline, 205 lbs/milliion BTUs for bituminous coal, and 213 lbs/million BTUs for sub-bituminous coal.

At Grist, Glenn Hurowitz provides perspective on the massive expansion:

When burned, the coal threatens to release more than 3.9 billion tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, equal to the annual emissions from 300 coal-fired power plants.

For another perspective: the Sierra Club has recently taken credit for stopping 150 coal plants. Obama has just added twice that number.

In the announcement, Salazar explicitly endorsed the Republican "all of the above" energy policy, according to the Washington Post:

Even so, the Obama administration remains committed to an “all of the above” energy policy that relies on a variety of renewable and nonrenewable sources, Salazar said.

“The president knows this approach is the approach we will embrace in the future. The president also knows that we need to embrace and encourage safe development of traditional energy — coal, oil, gas and nuclear,” Salazar said.

As High Country News points out, Salazar's press conference/announcement has the feel of a political stunt aimed at showing the administration's solidarity with the coal industry. It's possible that there's a political upside to this announcement. Perhaps an expansion of PRB coal is meant to substitute for a restriction of Appalachian coal. Perhaps it's meant to distract from new EPA rules on mercury and other emissions from coal plants. Perhaps it ties in to Jon Tester's (D-MT) reelection bid in some obscure fashion. However, it's simply wrong to embrace Republican politics at the expense of policymaking with such grave consequences.

Update 2:45 PM Cal. time: The Casper Star-Tribune, a Wyoming newspaper, has just reported that Salazar appears to have vastly overstated the money flowing to federal and state governments: of his $2 billion estimate, "It turns out the likely total is far lower -- an amount you get if you move the decimal point over one spot." So Salazar is wrong on greenhouse gas emissions and money. Anything else?

Originally posted to Climate Hawks on Thu Mar 24, 2011 at 09:34 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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