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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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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.