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Take a Frightening Tour Down America's 'Climate Change Highway' [with Slideshow]

A stretch of a Wyoming road offers a good glimpse of our future.
 
 
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Trucks work in an open pit mine in Wyoming's Powder River Basin.
Photo Credit: Tara Lohan

 
 
 
 

Editor's Note: View a slideshow at the end.

Wyoming is not short on scenic drives. You can hug the shores of Yellowstone Lake on Route 20. You can get caught in a traffic jam of bison on Teton Park Road. You can try to keep pace with the Snake River as your vehicle huffs and puffs over the mountainous Route 189.

I did all of those things this summer, but first I took a different sort of drive, which put the beauty of these places in context. I drove the “Climate Change Highway”: Route 59, south of Gillette in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. It’s hundreds of miles from the touristy byways of Yellowstone and the Tetons, yet what happens along this road in the next decade may well determine our future.

There’s not exactly a sign proclaiming that Route 59 is the Climate Change Highway, like there is for California’s “ Petroleum Highway,” along Route 33. It’s a pet name given by Shannon Anderson, an organizer with the Powder River Basin Resource Council in Sheridan, Wyoming.

The PRBRC calls for “responsible development” in the Powder River Basin, which encompasses parts of southeastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming. “I call it the Climate Change Highway because of the coal mines, the fracking, the coal-bed methane — it’s everything,” said Anderson.

The Powder River Basin provides more coal than any other region in the country, is home to one of the largest gasfields, and now may be the site of the next oil boom, too. The impacts of burning just coal from the basin make the area the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the nation.

Coal Country

To get to the Climate Change Highway from the cowboy town of Sheridan, I avoid the interstate and head southeast on the two-lane meandering Route 14/16. It’s rolling hills, grassland, ranches, and mostly sage dotting the fencelines along the road. Cottonwoods huddle by creeks and streams.

It’s not long before I’m passing through Clearmont and my truck is running right alongside one of Warren Buffet’s coal trains.

Around here the rails are dominated by BNSF—the second largest freight train network on the continent. It’s a wholly owned subsidiary of Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway and the former marriage of the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe railroads. Buffet’s hands (and checkbook) are dirtied with coal dust (numerous lawsuits have been launched against BNSF’s coal trains for health and environmental impacts), and BNSF also hauls diluents that are key to tar sands mining as well as pipeline materials. It's fitting that Buffet’s rail network parallels the Climate Change Highway.

Before I get to Gillette, the self-proclaimed “Energy Capital of the Nation,” I pause at the Eagle Butte mine, owned by Alpha Natural Resources. There is a pull-out on the road, complete with a viewing platform where you can peer into the dusty abyss below. The coal hauling trucks and loaders that traverse the open-pit mine look miniature because of the scale—in reality, the wheels are about 13 feet high, but from my vantage they look like toy trucks playing in a sandbox. It’s a metaphor for our relationship with coal; too often we underestimate its impact when we’re too far removed from the digging, scraping and hauling. And maybe also when we’re too far removed from the burning of coal. And from the climate science.

As I continue my drive south of Gillette on Route 59, there are signs for more mines like Caballo (Peabody), Belle Ayr (Alpha), Cordero Rojo (Cloud Peak), and Coal Creek (Arch), although none of them provide viewing platforms like Eagle Butte. Fences separate passersby from the action and the dust obscures whatever views remain. (See an interactive map of all the mines here.) Occasionally I can make out the specter of a dragline, the massive excavators that can weigh up to 13,000 tons. I catch the outline of one on the horizon as I stop to photograph a pronghorn in the sage.