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