Feds hit pause button on public lands coal leasing

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Coal is quickly becoming yesterday’s fuel.

Program review to take close look at climate impacts of fossil fuel development

Staff Report

The federal government will halt new coal leases on public lands pending a thorough review of the the program, including environmental impacts. Part of the proposal is to set up a public database to tally up carbon emissions  from fossil fuels developed on public lands.

The Bureau of Land Management would also be required to post requests for leases and for royalty reductions, and to figure ways to better  capture of waste mine methane, Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell announced this week.

Along with considering environmental impacts, the Interior Department wants to do more to ensure that the federal coal program provides a fair return to taxpayers. Jewell said all the steps combined will help move the U.S. toward a clean energy economy.

Specifically, the review will address questions raised by the Government Accountability Office, the Interior Department’s Inspector General, Congress and the public.

“Even as our nation transitions to cleaner energy sources, building on smart policies and progress already underway, we know that coal will continue to be an important domestic energy source in the years ahead,” Jewell said.

The pause on new leases during the review won’t apply to existing coal production activities and includes some exceptions, including for metallurgical coal (typically used in steel production), small lease modifications and emergency leasing, including where there is a demonstrated safety need or insufficient reserves.

During and after the pause, companies can continue to mine the large amount of coal reserves already under lease — enough to sustain current levels of production from federal land for approximately 20 years.

“We are undertaking this effort with full consideration of the importance of maintaining reliable and affordable energy for American families and businesses, as well other federal programs and policies,” Jewell said.

The programmatic review announced today comes after a series of public listening sessions across the country in 2015. The review will include extensive opportunities for public participation this year with and interim report due by the end of 2016. The full review is expected to take approximately three years.

Additional information on today’s announcements can be found here. The Secretarial Order can be found here. Additional information on the federal coal program can be found here.

President Obama telegraphed the proposal in his State of the Union address, when he said it was past the time to change management of coal resources in order to address the costs of climate change to our planet. Last fall, the Obama said, “if we’re going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky.”

With coal prices plummeting and after a string of bankruptcies, the fossil fuel industry must have seen the writing on the wall for some time. But the dinosaurs of the energy industry still couldn’t come up with any new or meaningful response to the announcement, falling back on tired old arguments like claiming the proposal will cost jobs.

Here’s part of the statement from National Mining Association president Hal Quinn, who resorted to some questionable sarcasm:

“Despite the impediments of above-market royalty rates and job-crushing red tape, the coal supply being cut off by today’s action has been the source of the lowest cost and most reliable electricity keeping America’s lights on and people working. Apparently, coal’s resilience poses a threat to the administration’s policies to move America away from affordable, reliable and secure energy.”

Environmental, health and community advocates hailed the announcement as a step toward cleaning up the nation’s air and meeting aggressive greenhouse gas reduction targets during the next few decades.

Carbondale, Colorado Mayor Stacey Bernot said the current rules for coal mining on public lands are antiquated and do not reap a fair return for taxpayers.

“My community, once known for coal mining, has transitioned in the last three decades away from coal,” Bernot said. “Technological advances, research, and economic pressures assure all of us that when changes happen adaptation is imperative.  Subsidizing coal is not the answer, assisting communities in transitioning, as Carbondale was forced to do, is what is needed for Western communities,” she added.

“This is a major victory for the climate and for America,” said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ climate and energy program director.  “It’s time to keep our publicly owned coal in the ground and stop letting coal companies profit off the destruction of our planet,” said Nichols, explaining that the proposal could help keep nearly three billion tons of coal in the ground and to prevent the release of more than five billion metric tons of carbon pollution.

According to Nichols, it could be a first toward toward reforms that will phase out the the federal government’s role in approving more coal mining in the U.S. More than 40 percent of all coal produced in the U.S. comes from publicly owned deposits that are managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior.  This coal, which is extracted mainly from the American West, is mined for one reason:  to be burned. When burned, this coal produces more than 11 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gases.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to help our nation fully move toward clean energy,” said Nichols.  “Importantly, it’s an opportunity to come up with a plan to help coal-dependent communities and miners transition to more sustainable and prosperous economies.”

WildEarth Guardians provided the following information on public lands coal leasing in a press release:

Currently, the Interior Department is weighing 61 applications for new coal leases nationwide, 42 of which are located in the American West.  In the Powder River Basin of northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana, which is the nation’s largest coal producing region, more than two billion tons of coal leases are pending.  These leases would expand the largest coal mines in the U.S., which are owned by the largest coal companies.

A series of interactive maps prepared by WildEarth Guardians illustrates where these leases are located and provides key details.

In spite of climate concerns, leasing of publicly owned coal has continued unrestrained.  In June of 2015, the Interior Department leased 42 million tons of coal in Utah, opening the door for more than 78 million metric tons of carbon pollution.  And this month, Interior officials are slated to vote on whether to process to two new coal leases in the Powder River Basin totaling more than 640 million tons of coal.

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