coal mining-fxp-flickrWhen it comes to energy “we cannot be afraid of the future,” according to President Obama. But it would be a lot easier not to worry if Obama’s policies lived up to his rhetoric.

Instead, we get this: just a few weeks after Harvard Medical School researchers determined that the hidden costs of coal rack up to perhaps a half trillion dollars annually for the US public, the Obama administration decides to allow a staggering volume of coal strip mining in the eastern Rockies, and on publicly-owned land.

The newly leased public land is expected to yield 758 million tons of coal, enough to generate more than 1.3 billion tons of carbon-dioxide when burned. That’s more carbon pollution than all the energy—from planes, factories, cars, power plants, etc. — used in an entire year by all 44 nations in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean combined. Even worse, if mining interests have their way, a huge share of that coal will be exported to China where lax pollution controls are the norm.

You could be forgiven for thinking that President Obama isn’t aware of the horrific cost of that scale of coal mining. But that would be a bit odd, considering that just prior to the well-publicized arrival of Harvard Medical School’s new research, the National Academies found that the damages from burning coal for electricity are 20 times higher than the damages from natural gas, the next dirtiest (and costliest) fossil fuel used to produce power. And of course that report comes on the heels of the 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences that US coal burning results in $60 billion in health costs alone.

  • Neither National Academies study accounted for climate change-related damages, costs that may prove to be incalculable. Or as Obama has said: “There’s no longer a debate about whether carbon pollution is placing our planet in jeopardy. It’s happening… The consequences are dire.”

    Yes. They are dire. And that’s thanks in large part to Obama.

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    Fun update!—It appears that the Obama administratin wildly exaggerated the economic benefits of coal mining. The Wyoming Tribune-Eagle reports: “[Salazar] said the sales would add between $13.4 billion and $21.3 billion to government coffers… The likely total is far lower, or the amount you get if you move the decimal point over one spot to the left… coal would more likely produce about $2 billion, nearly half of which flows to state coffers… Simple math illustrates the error.” The correction, by the way, was made by the mining industry itself. Oops.

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    Notes: I calculated 1.3 billion tons of CO2 by using figures characteristic of typical coal supplies in the Powder River Basin: I assumed the coal will, on average, generate 8,500 BTUs per pound with 212.7 pounds of CO2 per million BTUs. I did not factor in the substantial carbon impacts of methane release from mining, nor the costs of extracting, processing, and transporting the coal. So, the true climate bill is much higher.

    Coal mining photo courtesy of flickr user fxp under a Creative Commons license.