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Take a Frightening Tour Down America's 'Climate Change Highway' [with Slideshow]

A stretch of a Wyoming road offers a good glimpse of our future.

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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.”