Biggest Energy Blunder of Obama Years? Administration Opens New Lands for Mining
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In a move that is likely to go down as one of the largest energy policy blunders of the Obama years, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Tuesday announced that his office was opening the door for 2.35 billion tons of new coal mining operations in Wyoming's stretch of the Powder River Basin.
It's all about the money, of course and it shouldn't come as a surprise that Ken Salazar pressed the green light for more dirty energy development instead of funding renewables.
The Powder River Basin (PBR), like most coal producing regions in the county, is not certified as such. Meaning, mining operations in the area do not entirely fall under the rubric of the Federal Coal Leasing Amendments Act of 1976 (FCLAA). As such, taxpayers are being hoodwinked into believing leasing our public lands to Big Coal is good for the government's piggy bank.
It's not. Here's the story. During the 1970s there was a public lands coal-leasing moratorium put in place for the United States because of wild mining speculation and lack of transparency. The moratorium ended in 1980, and then acting Interior Secretary James Watt began selling coal leases all over the Powder River Basin. Then, in the late 1980s, PBR was decertified as a coal-producing region; therefore leases on public lands would no longer have to follow the guidelines offered up in FCLAA.
It was a brilliant maneuver conjured up by the legal minds paid for by Big Coal and backed by their allies in Congress. To this day the government has been selling off public land at below market value, which in the end bolsters coal's competitiveness with cleaner energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal.
Many environmentalists had hoped an Obama administration would plug these loopholes and not allow coal companies to exploit the public trust. But all hope vanished on the day President Obama named Ken Salazar as his Interior Secretary.
By almost any standard, it was difficult to imagine a more uninspired or uninspiring choice for the job than professional middle-of-the-roader Ken Salazar, the conservative Democrat from Colorado. This pal of Alberto Gonzalez was a meek politician. He never demonstrated the stomach for confronting the corporate bullies that exploited the West: the coal, timber and oil companies who feasted on Interior Department handouts for decades. Even as attorney general of Colorado, Salazar built a record of timidity when it came to going after renegade mining companies.
Nevertheless, the editorial pages of Western papers hailed Salazar's nomination. The common theme was that Salazar would be "an honest broker." But broker of what? Mining claims and oil leases, no doubt.
So of course Carl Pope, CEO of the Sierra Club, who fine-tuned this kind of rhetorical airbrushing during the many traumas of the Clinton years wrote to Club backers that Salazar was a "leading voice in calling for the development of the West's vast solar, wind, and geothermal resources. He will make sure that we create the good-paying green jobs that will fuel our economic recovery without harming the public lands he will be charged with protecting."
Who knew that strip-mining for coal, an industry Salazar resolutely promoted during his public career, was a green job? Hold on tight, here we go once more down the rabbit hole.
In the exhaust-stream, not far beyond Mr. Pope, came an organization (you can't call them a group, since they don't really have any members) called the Campaign for American Wilderness, lavishly endowed by the centrist Pew Charitable Trusts, to fete Salazar. According to Mike Matz, the Campaign's executive director, Salazar "has been a strong proponent of protecting federal lands as wilderness ... As a farmer, a rancher, and a conservationist, Sen. Salazar understands the importance of balancing traditional uses of our public lands with the need to protect them. His knowledge of land management issues in the West, coupled with his ability to work with diverse groups and coalitions to find common ground, will serve him well at the Department of the Interior."