New Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s first day was today. One of the first things that will cross her desk is a letter asking her to halt coal mining leases on public lands in the Powder River Basin.
Coal is the largest single source for U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Domestic coal use has leveled off and coal companies want to export it to other countries. But we as taxpayers can stop this from happening because we own much of the coal still in the ground.
The Powder River Basin stretches from Wyoming to Montana. Each of the top ten coal mines in the country are in the Basin, and most coal deposits on public lands are mostly located there. This area holds 1 trillion tons of coal — though only 25 billion tons of it are economically feasible to actually pull out of the ground.
The letter (full text found here) points out that those 25 billion tons would not only be unfeasible, they would be disastrous:
Coal remains the largest single source of climate pollution in the United States. Coal mined in the Powder River Basin alone (80 percent of which is federal coal) is the source of 13 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions. As the steward of one of the world’s largest coal reserves, Department of Interior can no longer ignore the enormous climate impact of new and existing coal leases….
Absent a moratorium and reform, Interior is poised to approve 3.5 billion tons of new coal mining, which would be an unprecedented expansion of federal coal extraction. DOI cannot facilitate these massive extraction projects without undermining President Obama’s commitment to address climate change.
The climate argument should be all that is needed in this debate, but there is even more to the story. American taxpayers subsidize coal through tax breaks, public lands loopholes, and railroad subsidies. In January, Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) asked Secretary Jewell’s predecessor Ken Salazar to investigate if U.S. taxpayers were getting bilked by coal companies mining public lands and selling their product to foreign markets.
This is important because the Bureau of Land Management, which administers the lands and leases, is supposed to “ensure that the development of coal resources is done in an environmentally sound manner and is in the best interests of the Nation.”
Though coal exports reached a record high last year, coal extractors could see trouble on the horizon. After a proposed coal export terminal in Coos Bay, Oregon lost all investors, the number of proposed terminals in Washington and Oregon dropped from 5 to 4.
One common argument for expanded coal mining for domestic use concerns so-called “clean coal” or carbon capture and sequestration techniques, which would allow coal to emit no greenhouse gases. A recent Congressional Research Service report makes clear that a decade after the first federal “clean coal” project was announced, it is still nowhere near being completed. This is after the scope of the initiative was reduced in 2010 to just retrofitting an existing plant, and the price has been estimated at $1.65 billion.
So leasing public lands to coal strip mining would be disastrous. Exporting it would also be a bad deal. Domestic clean coal is still a myth. Fortunately U.S. coal consumption dropped nearly 12 percent from 2011 to 2012, though it increased at the end of the year.
We are not dependent on burning coal to provide electricity anymore. The U.S. had a record-breaking year for wind energy in 2012. Los Angeles looks to be coal-free in 12 years. Global solar power could be net-positive in a few years. The U.S. military is pursuing renewable energy to become energy independent.
The climate impacts of burning all of that coal are the most compelling, however, and would lock us into a high-carbon future we would be unable to change. As the letter, which was sent by environmental groups ranging from 350.org to Greenpeace, CREDO to Public Citizen and Sierra Club says:
As Secretary, you now have the responsibility to bring the federal coal leasing program in line with President Obama’s call to “respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” and to ensure taxpayers are not unfairly subsidizing the coal industry’s export ambitions.