Monumental decision places coal off limits

By Freedom New Mexico

Then-president Bill Clinton’s surprise creation of the 2-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in September 1996 may seem like ancient history to many Americans, if they recall it all.

But the decision, made in secret, implemented by executive order and timed by Clinton to solidify the support of environmental groups in the days leading up to Election Day, now looms ominously in Utah’s energy future.

Controversy still lingers over Clinton’s actions in the southern part of the Beehive State. It was so unpopular at the time that Clinton made the announcement in Arizona, putting the Grand Canyon between himself and dissenting voices. But the debate over designation may become even more heated as time goes by, given the vast storehouses of coal that Clinton placed off limits.

This isn’t just any coal; it’s some of the cleanest coal in the world, which would help reduce noxious emissions from power plants. At the time, of course, Clinton won kudos from gang green for taking the long view. That he was locking away critical energy deposits was a footnote to the larger flap, which focused on his circumvention of Congress and use (or misuse, according to some critics) of the Antiquities Act.

The decision now can be judged short-sighted, however, in terms of environment protection and in light of our current energy woes.

“With most of Utah’s extensive coal resources beyond the reach of mining companies, the future of the state’s industry appears limited,” The Salt Lake Tribune reported last week. “Whether it’s 12 years or 40 years, there’s an end in sight,” the chief of the Bureau of Land Management’s minerals section in Utah told a meeting of the Utah Geological Association.

Major coal beds elsewhere in the state will be played out before long. The state’s largest remaining deposits (accounting for 63 percent of total reserves) are on the Kaiparowits Plateau. “But it was taken off the production map when former President Clinton created Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which surrounds a proposed mine site,” the Tribune pointed out.

This not only creates energy uncertainty in Utah, which gets 83 percent of its electricity from coal, but it has implications for neighboring states, since Utah will have to look elsewhere to supply its coal-fired power plants. A state that could be using and exporting clean coal will instead become dependent on imports of “dirtier” coal. Higher energy bills for consumers there and in neighboring states likely will result.

This assumes, as energy realists should, that coal will remain a critical part of the energy picture for decades to come. Panacea-pushers and global warming alarmists have been discounting coal’s role, with some even calling for a ban on new plants (at least until CO2 can be “captured” and “sequestered” — no easy or cheap feat). “Renewables” are touted as a viable alternative. Some companies have been canceling or delayed new plants, fearing the regulatory climate change to come.

But anti-coal crusaders are deluded. Coal is the one proven and reliable energy source America has in abundance. Access to cleaner coal, and finding better ways to cleanly burn “dirtier” coal, are critical to any credible plan for energy self-reliance. You’d have to cover Utah with windmills, and crisscross it with new transmission corridors, in order to make up for the energy deficits going coal-turkey would create.

With his September surprise, Clinton put crass political calculus ahead of national energy security. And he did the environment no favors, either, since power plants in Utah and elsewhere that might be burning low-sulfur coal from the Kaiparowits Plateau instead are using dirtier coal to keep the lights burning in Utah.

The “legacy” Clinton wanted to achieve with the stroke of a pen will be a much darker one than he anticipated. Today, in fact, it looks like a mistake of, well, monumental proportions.