Opening Up Federal Lands to Big Coal: Salazar’s Folly

with Jeffrey St Clair

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 feastered 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.”

Whenever seasoned greens see the word “common ground” invoked as a solution for thorny land use issues in the Interior West it sets off an early warning alarm. “Common ground” is another flex-phrase like, “win-win” solution that indicates greens will be handed a few low-calorie crumbs while business will proceed to gorge as usual.

In Salazar’s case, these morsels were a few measly wilderness areas inside non-contentious areas, such as Rocky Mountain National Park. Designating a wilderness inside a national park is about as risky as placing the National Mall off-limits to oil drilling.

But Salazar’s green gifts never came without a cost. In the calculus of common ground politics, trade-offs come with the territory.

For example, Salazar, under intense pressure from Coloradoans, issued a tepid remonstrance against the Bush administration’s maniacal plan to open up the Roan Plateau in western Colorado to oil drilling. But he voted to authorize oil drilling off the coast of Florida, voted against increased fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks and voted against the repeal of tax breaks for Exxon-Mobil when the company was shattering records for quarterly profits.

On the very day that Salazar’s nomination was leaked to the press, the Inspector General for the Interior Department released a devastating report on the demolition of the Endangered Species Act under the Bush administration, largely at the hands of the disgraced Julie MacDonald, former Deputy Secretary of Interior for Fish and Wildlife. The IG report, written by Earl Devaney, detailed how MacDonald personally interfered with 13 different endangered species rulings, bullying agency scientists and rewriting biological opinions. “MacDonald injected herself personally and profoundly in a number of ESA decisions,” Devaney wrote in a letter to Oregon Senator Ron Wyden. “We determined that MacDonald’s management style was abrupt and abrasive, if not abusive, and that her conduct demoralized and frustrated her staff as well as her subordinate managers.”

What McDonald did covertly, Salazar seems to be attempting openly in the name of, yes, common ground. While Lisa Jackson and the EPA have dealt a few hefty blows to the coal industry’s practice of mountaintop removal in Appalachia, in steps Salazar to hand out billions of dollars worth of public lands in Wyoming to coal companies well below market value. But common ground has long been a theme of Salazar’s political maneuvers.

Take the case of the white-tailed prairie dog, one of the declining species that MacDonald went to nefarious lengths to keep from enjoying the protections of the Endangered Species Act. Prairie dogs are viewed as pests by ranchers and their populations have been remorselessly targeted for elimination on rangelands across the Interior West.

Ken Salazar, former rancher, once threatened to sue the Fish and Wildlife Service to keep the similarly imperiled black-tailed prairie dog off the endangered species list. The senator also fiercely opposed efforts to inscribe stronger protections for endangered species in the 2008 Farm Bill.

Progressives and green-minded voters made no demands of Obama during the election and sat silently as he backed off-shore oil drilling, pledged to build new nuclear plants and sang the virtues of the oxymoron known as clean-coal technology.

Looking back, it is easy to see the writing on the wall. The battered S&P Coal index rose by three percent on the day Obama introduced the coal-friendly Salazar as his nominee. Their investment in Salazar is now paying off dearly, at the public’s expense.

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5 thoughts on “Opening Up Federal Lands to Big Coal: Salazar’s Folly

  1. […] of millions into “clean coal” projects or from allowing the Bureau of Land Management from opening up public lands in the Powder River Basin for coal mining. Nonetheless, as awareness of coal’s contribution to […]

  2. […] of millions into “clean coal” projects or from allowing the Bureau of Land Management from opening up public lands in the Powder River Basin for coal mining. Nonetheless, as awareness of coal’s contribution to […]

  3. […] of millions into “clean coal” projects or from allowing the Bureau of Land Management from opening up public lands in the Powder River Basin for coal mining. Nonetheless, as awareness of coal’s contribution to […]

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