Perhaps appropriately, I sequestered myself recently. For two weeks, I had the honor and good fortune to be a writer-in-resident at the U Cross Foundation, in north central Wyoming. It’s an opportunity for writers and artists to leave the real world behind for a while in order to concentrate on a project, which I greatly appreciated. I made the best of my time. In addition to working on the carbon book, I managed to pull together a collection of essays into a new book! We’ll see if it makes it into publication or not, but I was grateful for the chance to give it a go.
During my last two days at U Cross, I decided to unsequester myself and do a little carbon tourism. The Foundation sits within the famous Power River Basin, which, if you don’t know your carbon geography, is home to one of the largest coal deposits in the world. The Basin produces over 400 million tons of coal a year, which is about 40% of all the coal burned in the nation’s power stations and more than twice what second-place West Virginia mines. Recently, the U.S. Department of the Interior made more coal leases available on public land in the Basin for production, much to the consternation of many of us who are worried about climate change.
To see for myself, I jumped into my rental and headed east toward Gillette, Wyoming, in the heart of carbon country.
The word coal comes from the Old English term col which means ‘fossilized carbon’ and the substance itself has been in use as a fuel source in England since the 13th century. Geologically, it’s a brown or black sedimentary rock laid down in layers or seams usually as the result of plants becoming submerged in an oxygen-less medium (such as the bottom of a swamp). Subjected to intense heat and pressure over the eons, the carbon first becomes peat, then lignite, then subbituminous coal, then bituminous coal, then anthracite, which is a rock-like substance.
I suspect everyone knows that coal is primarily burned to produce electricity and that the resulting release of carbon dioxide is a primary cause of global warming, so I won’t go into those details.
The Powder River Basin contains a lot of subbituminous coal, which is highly prized because it is low in sulpher dioxide (SO2), another pollutant. Production in the Basin exploded when regulations kicked in to limit the amount of SO2 that could be released from Appalachian mines and power plants. However, mining the coal seams in the Basin requires the removal of a great deal of overburden – the rock lying between the coal and the surface. The cost of removing this overburden is high, which means coal dances back-and-forth across a fine economic line – cost effective vs. not cost effective. Right now, it’s having a hard time competing with natural gas (also produced in the Basin), which has glutted the energy market.
There’s another price, of course – climate change.
But don’t tell that to Wyoming-nites. They love their coal. And they have the pick-up trucks to prove it – many of which traveled well in excess of the speed limit past the U Cross compound on their way to work, scaring the beejesus out of the wild turkeys trying to cross the road. They scared the beejesus out of me a few times as I traveled down a back highway to Gillette. Powder River mines have a life expectancy of only twenty years on average, so maybe the drivers felt a need to get to their jobs as fast as possible!
Actually, it’s not a joke to the locals. According to a recent news story, power generation in America from coal is falling quickly. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal made up 36 % of U.S. electricity in the first quarter of 2012 – down from 44.6 % in the first quarter of 2011. This steep drop is primarily due to low natural gas prices and it is expected to continue into the foreseeable future. That’s bad news for Wyoming-nites, I suppose, but good new for everyone else.
As far as carbon tourism goes, however, there wasn’t much to see. I had expected something like a ‘National Sacrifice Area’ around Gillette – a veritable moonscape of gouged-out land and rusting infrastructure. Instead, what I mostly saw were coal trains, often 120 cars in length stretching a half-mile on the tracks. Each carries 17,000 tons of coal at a time. I chased one as it left Gillette, paralleling Interstate 90. I wanted to snare a photograph of it, if I could.
As I chased it, another coal train passed going in the opposite direction – empty. I watched as the two trains sidled past one another, one full of climate-damaging carbon, the other returning for a refill. There was something oddly symbolic about seeing the two trains pass each other. We shouldn’t burn coal; we know it’s bad for the planet and us – but we do it anyway. It’s an addiction that we can’t stop. 17,000 tons of coal heading out to feed our habit, an empty train coming back for more. And more. And more.
It’s not just Americans. Coal companies are increasingly looking to overseas markets for their unwanted coal, especially in Asia, which has an apparently insatiable appetite for the black stuff. According to the same news story, the Asia export market is exploding, jumping from 3.8 million tons in 2009 to 27.5 million tons in 2011. One of the Powder River Basin coal companies said its exports ballooned 42 % to almost 5 million tons of coal last year. This is doubly bad news. Instead of staying in the ground, where it belongs, the CO2 from Powder River coal would still end up in the atmosphere.
I say, the best place for this type of carbon is in the soil – leave it be.
Here’s a photo to go with my opinion: