Climate change is imposing a harsh choice in eastern Montana’s coal fields: stop mining, which has helped create everything from schools to senior centers, or face catastrophic future harm as fossil fuel emissions warm the earth, increasing catastrophes, crop losses, and early deaths.
Spring Creek, a huge pit among sagebrush hills where house-sized mechanical shovels scrape up millions of tons of coal annually, much of it sent overseas and burnt in Asian power plants, is one of the major mines in this desert region bordering the Wyoming border.
Hundreds of employment at Spring Creek support the economy of the Crow Indian Reservation and surrounding areas of Wyoming. Coal taxes and royalties pay nearly two-thirds of government services in Big Horn County, which encompasses the majority of the tribe. It’s one of America’s most coal-dependent cities.
Since Spring Creek opened 40 years ago, “everything has coal dust on it,” said county commissioner George Real Bird III, alluding to municipal improvements supported with coal money.
Climate change is exacerbated by greenhouse gas emissions from coal burning, and President Joe Biden’s administration wants to put a price tag on the ensuing harm to people and the environment. The “social cost of carbon” might be used to support emission reduction regulations for fossil fuels, transportation, and other sectors.
However, a federal court in Louisiana temporarily stopped the administration’s attempts last month, prohibiting it from adopting an interim benchmark of $51 in damages per ton of carbon dioxide released.
In the coming weeks, the White House planned to revise its climate damage estimate. Many economists predicted that the figure would skyrocket, maybe even doubling. Republicans and business organizations contended that focusing on future climate impacts would stifle the economy, particularly the energy sector.
Applying the administration’s carbon cost to Spring Creek would result in yearly damages of more than $1 billion from a federal coal sale that would keep it mining for at least another several years.
It’s a staggering figure from just one of 15 mines in Montana and Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. The Biden administration is reviewing the climate implications and revisiting the mine’s permit after a federal court in Montana found that the government exaggerated the mine’s economic advantages.
Environmentalists are urging the government to halt a current Spring Creek expansion and end mining. Their objective is to utilize the social cost of carbon to prevent fossil fuel projects from being built, rather than only to inform regulations and policies, as in the past.
Climate change is already being felt in this thinly inhabited region, where repeating droughts have wreaked havoc on farms and ranches, lower river levels have harmed fisheries, and catastrophic wildfires have ripped across the terrain.
“The implications of merely the greenhouse gas emissions from burning this coal are significant,” said Shiloh Hernandez, an attorney who represents environmentalists opposed to mining. “These are actual consequences that have real consequences for real individuals.”
Spring Creek continues to dig despite the permit review, producing 13 million tons last year as Powder River Basin coal prices hit record highs as the economy recovered from its early-pandemic downturn. The mine is controlled by a Navajo firm that took over insolvent Cloud Peak Energy three years ago and became the third largest coal producer in the United States.
According to Navajo Transitional Energy Company spokesperson Erny Zah, the Navajo Transitional Energy Company prioritizes responsible mining and balances the environment with the economic requirements of residents in the Spring Creek area.
The current increase in coal prices isn’t expected to endure, according to local officials: Demand in the United Governments has declined over the last decade, and West Coast states have stymied plans to send additional coal overseas. In early 2021, a mine in Spring Creek closed.
Worried Eight years ago, Big Horn County commissioners hired accountant Michael Opie to assist them through the industry’s demise. He estimated that coal had roughly ten years remaining at the time. He’s no longer willing to make a forecast.
The county is transferring the financial burden onto local citizens to keep its sheriff’s office and other agencies running after budget cuts damaged vital services like upkeep of 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) of gravel roads.
Real Bird explained, “We’ve got to… effectively strip down government to the bare minimum.”
Last year, Spring Creek paid $23 million in local and state taxes and other contributions, according to Zah. The business forecasts a strong year for coal in 2022, but is preparing for another slump by suspending new equipment investments and relocating staff to mine reclamation duties.
The social cost of carbon was initially used by the Obama administration, which utilized it more than 80 times in cost-benefit evaluations for government measures, including stricter automobile emissions limits and coal plant closure restrictions.
The Trump administration reduced the social cost of carbon to $7 or less per ton in an attempt to reverse such regulations. The lower figure only covered domestic climate impacts, not global damages, making it more difficult to justify costly business regulations.
On an interim basis, Biden reinstated Obama’s $51-ton estimate and hinted that an even higher figure will be used. The administration filed an appeal on Saturday, claiming that the Feb. 11 court ruling prohibiting the use of the social cost of carbon could affect more than 30 pending rules, delay permits and leasing for federal fossil fuel reserves, and undermine international climate talks by silencing US officials on the subject.
“Seeing all of the impacted activities is a bit alarming,” said Romany Webb, a Columbia Law School climate change expert.
If the administration wins, Republican attorneys general, led by Louisiana’s Jeff Landry, have warned of more costly requirements in everyday life, including for home appliances, autos, and energy. The adoption of the carbon fee was dubbed “the most serious regulatory intrusion on individual liberty and state sovereignty in American history” by the authors.
However, many economists argue that dealing intelligently with climate change requires incorporating future costs in today’s actions.
Climate simulations produced by three economists in the 1990s yielded the $51-ton estimate.
Updated models, according to two of them, William Nordhaus of Yale University and Richard Tol of the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, reveal greater damage than originally projected.
“Estimates are higher… because we now have a better understanding of the impact of climate change on labor productivity — the human body cannot work hard in hot and humid conditions,” Tol explained.
Nordhaus revealed a “significant rise” in the social cost of carbon in a recent research, up to double prior estimates. Based on a worldwide warming of 3 degrees Celsius, he estimated trillions of dollars in damages, amounting to 2% of global revenue (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit).
Some economists, however, argue that the models fail to account for the intricacies of climate change, which might result in less harm than previously thought.
“You have to simulate the global climate system, the world economy, and the global economy for millennia.” “There’s a lot of uncertainty,” said Steve Rose, a senior economist at the Electric Power Research Institute, which is supported by utilities and government contracts.
Despite disagreements over the exact monetary value for climate harm, earlier court judgements have made it apparent that future effects must be taken into account in some way, according to Rose and numerous legal experts.
Because most of Biden’s climate agenda has stagnated in Congress, the issue might become a focal point if the administration employs executive branch measures to curb industrial emissions, according to Michael Greenstone, former head economist for the White House Council of Economic Advisers.
Greenstone, who helped develop the Obama carbon tax and fought in court to apply it to Spring Creek, stated, “Climate science and climate economics have improved quickly.” He feels that a significant cost rise is necessary. “A value of roughly $200 per ton that represents the boundary of our understanding would be easier to justify.”