Activists launch campaign to end public lands coal mining

The U.S. is the second-largest producer of coal in the world, thanks in part to massive surface mines like this one in Wyoming. Photo courtesy BLM.
The U.S. is the second-largest producer of coal in the world, thanks in part to massive surface mines like this one in Wyoming. Photo courtesy BLM.

Report shows how to end public lands coal mining within 25 years

Staff Report

FRISCO — With control over over nearly 1 trillion tons of coal, the U.S. Department of Interior’s leasing and mining policies are a big factor in the rate of U.S. Greenhouse gas emissions. In 2014, for example, more than 40 percent of all U.S. coal production came from public lands managed by the Interior Department.

Continuing to extract and burn the coal from public lands at current rate will make it nearly impossible to meet even modest climate targets, conservation advocates said this week, calling on Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to acknowledge the risks of unchecked carbon emissions.

With a series of public hearings on coal mining policies coming up, WildEarth Guardians this week released a roadmap for keeping publicly owned coal in the ground and leading the nation away from fossil fuels.

“It’s time for the Interior Department to shut it down,” said Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Program Director for WildEarth Guardians. “Keeping our coal in the ground is the only way to ensure our country successfully transitions to clean energy and effectively confronts the climate crisis.”

The group has recently mounted several successful small-scale legal challenges to public lands coal mining, forcing agencies to revisit environmental studies with an eye toward climate impacts. At the same time, the Interior Department is holding hearings in the American West, inviting the public to have an “honest conversation” about modernizing the federal coal program. Among the issues flagged for discussion is how to make the federal coal program consistent with climate objectives.

According to the WildEarth Guardians’ report, the reasons for keeping coal in the ground are all too clear. Study after study has found that moving beyond coal is the single most important means of limiting carbon emissions. Most recently, scientists concluded that to meet modest climate targets, the United States must keep 95% of its recoverable coal reserves in the ground.

“Any honest conversation around the federal coal program must acknowledge the need to keep it in the ground,” said Nichols. The report shows how the Interior Department can allow companies to keep producing from existing leases to keep mining communities intact during the transition period, as carbon emissions linked to publicly owned coal are meaningfully reduced.

According to WildEarth Guardians, 11 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. and 46 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions from coal combustion can be traced back to the mining of publicly owned coal.

A recent decision by the Interior Department to permit mining of another 80 billion tons of coal in Montana and Wyoming is a huge step in the wrong direction, Nichols said. If all that coal is burned it would release more than 130 billion tons of carbon dioxide stands.

The new report by WildEarth Guardians lays out five key milestones for safeguarding the climate that need to be adopted by Interior, including:

  •  A moratorium on leasing publicly owned coal;
  • Retiring existing coal leases that are not producing;
  • Recovering carbon costs;
  • Honestly reporting to the American public on the climate impacts of the federal coal program ; and
  • Helping communities dependent on publicly owned coal transition to more sustainable and prosperous economies.

If these milestones are implemented, the report projects an end to the federal coal program over the next 10-25 years.

“Taken together, the U.S. Interior Department’s federal coal program can no longer continue to condone and facilitate the extraction of more coal and the production of more carbon,” says the report. “It’s time for Sally Jewell and the Department to chart a deliberate and expeditious path toward ending the program and keeping publicly owned coal in the ground for good.”



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