Climate

The Biggest Source Of U.S. Carbon Emissions Is Coal Extracted From Public Lands

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Coal mining operations in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming.

Taxpayer-owned coal is the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, according to a new report from the Center for American Progress and The Wilderness Society.

The report, released Thursday, finds that emissions from coal, oil and gas that is mined or drilled on federal lands and waters could account for 24 percent of all energy-related greenhouse gas emissions in 2012. The report also concludes that more than 10 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions result from the combustion of coal extracted on public lands in Wyoming and Montana, primarily in the Powder River Basin (PRB), where 40 percent of all U.S. coal is produced.

The report was released as coal companies operating on federal lands in the PRB are coming under increasing scrutiny for allegedly evading royalties by selling coal to their own subsidiary companies at depressed prices. With Thursday’s report, it appears Americans are not only missing out royalty payments that are owed for publicly owned coal, but are also footing the bill for high pollution costs that result from fossil-fuel extraction on public lands.

In addition to presenting new estimates of emissions from America’s shared energy resources, the report calls for the Obama Administration to develop a comprehensive strategy to account for and reduce carbon emissions. The U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) does not currently measure the total greenhouse gas emissions from public lands that it manages, despite being one of the most significant sources in the country.

“This report shows a clear blind spot in the nation’s climate change strategy and underscores the need to account for the amount of greenhouse gases traced to public lands,” said Chase Huntley, senior director of government relations at The Wilderness Society.

In a speech earlier this week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called for reform to the way that the DOI manages America’s public resources to consider climate change. She also called for “an honest and open conversation about modernizing the federal coal program,” that addresses climate change, transparency, and ensuring taxpayers are getting a fair return on a publicly held resource.

Secretary Jewell also previewed an upcoming proposed rule to cut methane emissions from the venting and flaring associated with fossil-fuel extraction on public lands — another major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. According to the report, methane pollution from onshore federal leases increased by 51 percent between 2008 and 2013. The rule is part of a White House plan to address methane emissions.

A draft rule is expected this summer, followed by a final rule in 2016.

In addition to cutting methane pollution, the report provides additional recommendations for cutting greenhouse gas emissions on public lands, such as setting royalty rates that incorporate the full costs of carbon pollution; requiring oil and gas companies to pay for the right to vent and flare; measuring and accounting for all emissions; and requiring companies to use the best-available technology to curb emissions.

Nicole Gentile is the Director of Campaigns with the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress.