Time to Make Coal Companies Pay Up

Part of doing business better is making companies pay and account for the environmental and social impacts of their projects. This is especially important in the energy sector, where coal, oil, and gas corporations have for years been allowed to externalize the costs of mining, drilling, and air pollution onto consumers and nearby communities. If these companies had to pay the full health and environmental bills for what they do, we surely would have seen a transition to 100% clean energy a long time ago. Fortunately the US Department of the Interior has a critical chance to right old wrongs and take a first step toward making coal companies pay for their messes.

An obvious pre-requisite for quantifying the costs of energy extraction is to admit where that extraction is taking place. To give an example from the coal industry, if you don’t have a thorough list of all the places coal is being extracted, you are going to have a hard time safeguarding the health of nearby communities and enforcing environmental rules that apply to mine sites. This seems so obvious that it shouldn’t even need reiteration. But in fact the largest source of coal extraction in the entire United States has not yet been designated a “coal extraction zone,” by the Department of the Interior.

Fully 40% of the coal burned in the US comes from the Powder River Basin, an area that spans the border between Montana and Wyoming. This region contains one of the largest coal reserves in the world, and burning even a fraction of it would be enough to nudge the planet over the tipping point to catastrophic climate change. Yet because it isn’t classified as a coal extraction zone, coal mine proposals in the Powder River Basin don’t undergo the level of environmental review that mines in other parts of the US are subject to. Energy companies also don’t have to engage in competitive bidding for mining leases, as they would in an official coal extraction zone. This means a coal corporation can walk away with the deed to a mine in the Powder River Basin for a fraction of the price it would have to pay elsewhere.

Meanwhile coal mining is taking a toll on communities in Montana and Wyoming. Mining sites are poisoning precious water supplies that farming families and indigenous tribes have relied on for generations. The environmental group WildEarth Guardians is attempting to change this by submitting a petition to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar which asks him to designate the Powder River Basin a coal extraction zone. Though this wouldn’t halt destructive mining in the region, it would at least go part way toward making energy companies pay for their mess, and bring the Powder River Basin in line with other parts of the country.

Secretary Salazar is expected to make a decision very soon on whether to grant WildEarth Guardian’s request. Industry pressure to deny the petition is certain to be strong, but this one really should be a no-brainer. It’s time to start counting the Powder River Basin as what it is: one of the most significant coal extraction zones in the entire United States.

Photo credit: eutrophication&hypoxia on Flickr