- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 22, 2011

CHEYENNE, Wyo. | Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced plans Tuesday to auction off vast coal reserves in Wyoming over the next five months, unleashing a significant but controversial power source amid uncertainty about clean and safe energy development.

The four coal leases next to existing strip mines in the Powder River Basin, the largest coal-producing region in the United States, total 758 million tons and will take between 10 and 20 years to mine.

Last year’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill raised questions about offshore oil drilling, and the current Japanese nuclear power plant crisis has renewed concern about nuclear energy. But coal has its own negatives, especially when it comes to climate change.

About 40 percent of the nation’s coal comes from Wyoming, and coal from the Powder River Basin used in power plants accounts for nearly 14 percent of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Even so, the Obama administration remains committed to an “all-of-the-above” energy policy that relies on a variety of renewable and nonrenewable sources, Mr. Salazar said.

“The president knows this approach is the approach we will embrace in the future. The president also knows that we need to embrace and encourage safe development of traditional energy coal, oil, gas and nuclear,” he added.

The mining industry has anticipated the auction of the federal coal reserves since companies started applying for them in 2004. It blames the BLM, which is under Mr. Salazar’s purview, for applying unnecessary red tape and adding uncertainty to their industry.

Selling the coal also will benefit Wyoming, bringing in anywhere from $13.4 billion to $21.3 billion, according to the BLM. Nearly half of that money will go to the state.

“We need the energy. We need the jobs that come with energy. We need the electricity,” said Gov. Matthew Mead, who joined Mr. Salazar for the announcement.

The decision doesn’t sit well with environmentalists. The coal will provide 20 times more electricity than the Interior Department committed all last year to develop from renewable sources, said Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians.

The group already is challenging two of the proposed coal leases in court on climate-change grounds, although there’s been no sign that the auctions will be halted.

Environmental analysis, WildEarth Guardians’ protests, the change in presidential administrations and the large number of Wyoming coal-lease applications submitted at the same time all played a role in delaying the auctions until now, BLM spokeswoman Beverly Gorny said.



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