On May 29, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management released a regional management plan for the Buffalo Field Office, the Wyoming office charged with managing the Powder River Basin, an area that supplies nearly 40 percent of U.S. coal.
Under the proposed plan, the BLM estimates that it will issue 28 new coal leases, which could open up the mining of 10 billion tons of coal over the next 20 years.
That seems like a lot of coal. But is it really?
“It’s a huge amount, especially because the leasing period is the time frame that the world needs to get a handle on carbon emissions,” Shannon Anderson, an organizer with the environmental non-profit Powder River Basin Council, told ThinkProgress.
The United States burns around 900 million tons of coal annually — the amount of coal made available under the proposed Buffalo regional management plan is more than ten times that.
According to a report released by Greenpeace, if all 10.2 billion tons of coal made available by the leases was to be burned, 16.9 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide would be released into the atmosphere. That carbon, Greenpeace notes, significantly dwarfs any reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that would come from President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, often considered the president’s most robust action on climate change.
The Clean Power Plan isn’t the only environmental action Obama has taken, so it’s not necessarily a one-to-one comparison — but as Joe Smyth, a media officer with Greenpeace told ThinkProgress, it does offer a useful comparison between what is largely considered Obama’s signature piece of climate legislation and the potential climate impact of the BLM’s decision.
“When you look at the emissions from the Buffalo regional management plan, it’s an off the chart, massive amount of carbon pollution,” Smyth said. “These actions by the BLM are still operating under a business as usual approach, and really ignoring the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce carbon pollution.”
The United States produces around 1 billion tons of coal annually, with approximately 400 million tons of that coming from the Powder River Basin. The new management plan, Anderson said, won’t necessarily flood the U.S. market with more coal — instead, it will help mining operations maintain current levels of production, allowing them to tap into new reserves if they exhaust current ones. That’s because the new management plan doesn’t actually change the status quo of land management in the area — it simply keeps coal lease decisions from 2001 in place. According to Greenwire, the BLM found that it had received “no substantial new information regarding coal leasing.”
“The expectation is that it’s maintaining the status quo,” Anderson said. “That decision is really made in a silo, without any consideration of environmental impacts, and especially climate change.”
As Dave Roberts at Vox points out, the regional management plan simply increases the national supply of coal, not the demand for it. The Energy Information Administration estimates that the Clean Power Plan will spur a wave of coal plant retirements, reducing the demand for coal domestically — but that doesn’t mean that the coal mined under the Buffalo regional management plan won’t be shipped to overseas markets.
“The regional management plan doesn’t take into account the potential for exports, even though the coal industry is quite explicit about their desire to export large quantities of coal from the Powder River Basin,” Smyth said. “The Interior Department is still taking the view that that’s not going to happen.”
Under the BLM’s coal leasing program, the government also leases land to mining companies under very generous terms — as little as a dollar per ton, according to Smyth. Environmentalists have argued that the government’s generous prices effectively subsidize coal from public lands, selling coal owned by taxpayers at prices that give coal a distinct advantage over renewable energy. According to a 2012 study conducted by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, the federal government has left as much as $28.9 billion in revenue on the table over the last 30 years by offering coal companies below-market prices.
“It’s not just that they’re allowing this coal to be leased, it’s that they’re giving it away for such low prices,” Symth said. “It’s favoring coal at the expense of better and cleaner alternatives.”
Environmental groups had hoped that the Buffalo regional management plan would address both the massive amounts of coal allowed to be mined under current leases and the below-market prices at which those leases are sold. During a speech in March, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell stoked those hopes, saying that the government “must do more to cut greenhouse gas pollution that is warming our planet.” She also called for reforming the way that federal coal is valued and leased, saying that “it’s time for an honest and open conversation about modernizing the federal coal program.”
The proposed Buffalo regional management plan, Smyth says, suggests that Jewell isn’t taking her own comments to heart.
“We think the Obama administration has not spent sufficient time and attention on [the plan] given the scale of emissions,” Smyth said. “They really need to understand how big a problem this is in order to reform the [federal coal] program or phase it out over time.”
A previous headline on this post implied that the BLM’s plan opened up new areas of public lands to coal leasing. The lands have always been available for leasing — the BLM’s plan just keeps it that way. A new coal lease would need its own separate environmental review. ThinkProgress regrets the error.