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On August 21, a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lease sale in Cheyenne, Wyoming, for 149 million tons of publicly-owned coal failed to attract a single bid. It was the first time that a federal coal tract offered for sale in Wyoming failed to attract any bidders -- even the company that originally sought to mine the location determined that it couldn't do so profitably.
In June 2013, the Department of Interior's Inspector General released a report identifying numerous flaws in BLM's coal leasing program. Among them, the report confirmed that over the last 20 years 80 percent of Powder River Basin lease sales attracted only one bidder, and none attracted more than two.
Cloud Peak Energy, which applied for the Maysdorf II North Coal Tract lease in 2006 in order to expand its Cordero Rojo mine, said it had evaluated the coal tract in the Powder River Basin and decided not to submit a bid due to "current market conditions and the uncertain political and regulatory environment of coal and coal-fired electricity."
The Powder River Basin, which straddles the Wyoming-Montana border, is the largest coal mining region in the United States. But with the domestic coal market in steep decline, the economics of extracting its coal are increasingly bleak.
Cloud Peak Energy CEO Colin Marshall said that an economic analysis led the company to conclude that "a significant portion" of the coal up for bid was not economically recoverable. "We are unable to construct an economic bid for this tract at this time," he said. "We will continue to evaluate any possible future lease sales by the BLM of these tons in the North tract as market conditions improve."
But the assumption that market conditions for coal will improve is clearly questionable if not downright delusional. The failure of the lease sale to attract any bidders shows that the federal coal lease program is mired in outdated and inaccurate beliefs about coal's market value.
"It comes down to economics, plain and simple," said Aaron Isherwood, a managing attorney with the Sierra Club's Environmental Law Program. "The market for coal is incredibly soft, so why would the government sell publicly-owned coal at a time when people are paying rock-bottom prices for it? Federally-owned coal is supposed to be sold at fair market value. Would you try to sell your house right after the housing market craters? The public is getting ripped off. The failure of this lease to attract a single bid is clear evidence that the federal coal-leasing system is badly in need of reform."
Nearly 5 billion tons of federal coal is currently being leased or sold in the Powder River Basin, even as the domestic market for the resource is tanking. As confirmed by the Department of Interior report, the way leases are managed by the BLM is short-changing American taxpayers to the tune of millions of dollars with each successive lease.
Coal market experts who spoke in Wyoming and Montana earlier this week called for a moratorium on new federal coal leases until the Department of Interior and Bureau of Land Management "get their act together," asserting that the federal leasing program has shortchanged taxpayers by $30 billion over the past three decades.
"The BLM can't give this stuff away," said Bruce Nilles, senior director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, in reaction to the failure of the Maysdorf II coal tract to attract any bidders. "This is the beginning of the end of coal -- it's officially worthless. This is what happens when community after community replaces their aging coal plants with clean energy."
-- Tom Valtin, Sierra Club
On Tuesday August 13, a federal appeals court ruled that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) must restart its licensing process. The 1983 Nuclear Waste Policy Act required the NRC to approve or reject the Department of Energy's (DOE) license application for a repository to dump nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The DOE submitted their license application to the NRC in 2008 and filed a motion for its withdrawal in 2009 saying that the project was unworkable. This action by DOE prompted the filing of the lawsuit.
According to Chief Judge Merrick Garland, the lack of funding for the project limits the impact of the court's ruling because it amounts to, "little more than ordering the commission to spend part of those funds unpacking its boxes, and the remainder packing them up again." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid agreed, saying, "The place is locked up, it's padlocked. Nothing is happening with Yucca Mountain."
We support Senator Reid but know that for his statement to be reality we, the public, must show the sort of active opposition that made the DOE declare the project to be unworkable years ago.
Here’s a little history about Yucca Mountain. This site was designated by President George W. Bush’s administration as the site for the nation's repository for high-level nuclear waste, with plans to license the facility and send 70 thousand metric tons of radioactive waste to the site from all over the United States. But the process of choosing Yucca Mountain was flawed. Instead of using sound science, it was chosen through political action. And despite the $15.4 billion that has been spent on the repository project, all that is there is an exploratory tunnel into the mountain There are no tunnels for waste emplacement – no repository or dump.
Let's take a look at some facts:
Insane fact #2: Furthermore, regulators have consistently changed the standards for radiological exposure to satisfy operational parameters for the project. The designers and regulators for this project were initially faced with standards that were impossible to achieve, yet were required for public safety.
Insane fact #3: While some design aspects have been addressed, others are still up for discussion. For example, there hasn't been any field testing of the system for retrieving nuclear power rods stored there.
Insane fact #4: The transportation of radioactive materials hundreds, even thousands of miles into Nevada brings its own suite of public health and environmental risks. Mechanical failure and accidents have been compounded with threats presented by vandalism and terrorism.
Insane fact #5: Nevada doesn't even HAVE nuclear power. That's like getting lung cancer from second-hand smoke!
There is enough nuclear waste to completely fill Yucca Mountain already, and the evidence that Yucca is wrong for nuclear waste is too overwhelming to ignore. We, the public, have to make our opposition to Yucca loud and clear.
Radioactive waste storage is but one of the many issues associated with nuclear power. We must abandon nuclear power and move to a clean and renewable energy future.
-- Sierra Club Washington Rep Radha Adhar and Jane Feldman, Conservation Chair of the Southern Nevada Group of the Sierra Club
These concerned citizens were in Washington to talk to the Obama administration about updates to the so-called "startup, shutdown, malfunction" rule for industrial facilities, including coal plants and refineries. Existing loopholes in many states allow big polluters to skirt responsibility for huge blasts of toxic emissions that sometimes happen when a facility is starting up, shutting down, or experiencing a malfunction. For polluters that put the bottom line before the well-being of neighboring communities, this loophole provides a golden opportunity to release large amounts of toxic pollution without accountability.
While industry cashes in by abusing this regulatory exemption, it is low-income families and communities of color living next door to these coal plants, refineries, and other facilities that feel the brunt of the pollution. Earlier this year, the Obama administration and the Environmental Protection Agency put over 30 states on notice that they needed to update their standards for these pollution events. These loopholes were written into state reguations and are a relic of the past, dating back to when the EPA was first established and the agency was getting its regulatory sea legs. Now, big polluters are taking advantage of these loopholes, and the EPA is finally stepping up to update these protections and safeguard the health of nearby families.
On Friday, the Sierra Club joined community activists from affected cities in meeting with officials from the EPA and White House Council of Environmental Quality in D.C., where they discussed the extent of the industry's abuse of the exemption and urge for the strongest safeguards possible. The meeting included activists from Birmingham, Alabama, and Detroit, Michigan, two places where polluters have traditionally relied on apathy from government officials.
"These big polluters claim to be a part of our community, but it’s clear that they don't care about their neighbors when they continue to dump toxic pollution near our homes and schools that are making our children sick," said Rhonda Anderson, the Sierra Club's environmental justice organizer in Detroit, before the meeting. "Power plants and refineries will do whatever they can to avoid cleaning up their act, so it’s time for the EPA to close this dangerous loophole once and for all."
It's encouraging to see the White House sit down with activists whose families have been affected by industrial pollution for decades, and whose calls for action have gone ignored for far too long. This is a sign that the Obama administration's commitment to combating climate change includes prioritizing the health of low-income families and communities.
The White House has repeatedly affirmed its commitment to environmental justice, and this is an important opportunity to translate those words into action. As is always the case, industry will be pushing hard for the status quo, which is why these local residents traveled all the way to Washington last week. Closing this loophole for good will signify another big step toward moving the country to clean energy and safeguarding the health of our families and communities.
-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign Director
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