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Here’s Why President Obama’s Overhaul of the Federal Coal Program Is Such a Big Deal

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January 22, 2016

With one move, the Obama administration is keeping billions of tons of coal in the ground —  at least for now.

© Greenpeace / Tim Aubry

Last week, the Obama administration announced an immediate moratorium on new federal coal leasing and a comprehensive review of the federal coal program. The announcement was in line with the president’s State of the Union commitment that he would “push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet.”

There are a few exceptions to the moratorium, such as for metallurgical coal, and mining will continue on existing federal coal leases (here are the key details within the announcement). Nevertheless, this is a big deal.

It keeps billions of tons of coal in the ground, provides an opportunity to assess the many problems with the federal coal program, and most importantly, shows that policymakers may finally start to get serious about limiting fossil fuel extraction.

This moratorium will keep billions of tons of coal in the ground — at least for now.

It has been clear that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell was considering pursuing changes to the federal coal program since her speech a year ago calling for an “honest and open conversation about modernizing the federal coal program.” That was followed by public listening sessions in August 2015 throughout the areas where federal coal is mined.

But it was less clear if Secretary Jewell would stop leasing new coal while the Interior Department pursued changes to the program.

Multiple government and independent reviews have identified serious problems with the federal coal program, so it makes good sense to stop leasing under such a broken system. Nevertheless, there was some risk that the Obama administration could have chosen to try and avoid the inevitable political attacks from the coal industry and its political allies, and instead continued to lease coal while pursuing reforms.

Of course, given that the coal industry responds with shrill (and ineffective) cries about the “war on coal” to nearly every environmental policy proposal from the Obama administration, it’s hard to see what could be gained from trying to appease companies like Peabody Energy.

Fortunately, Secretary Jewell heeded the calls for a moratorium on new coal leasing that have followed her since her first day on the job. Some coal lease applications that were furthest along in the process could still move forward, but many more will not — meaning billions of tons of coal will be kept in the ground, at least for the three years that the Interior Department expects the review to last.

The review can assess the many ways in which the federal coal program is broken.

The federal coal program has undermined President Obama’s efforts to address climate change, with 2.2 billion tons of publicly owned coal leased for just about $1 a ton since the beginning of his presidency.

This moratorium and review is an important chance to better align the management of our publicly owned coal with our national climate policy objectives. But the mismanagement of federal coal has also had serious impacts in many other ways: for taxpayers, communities impacted by coal mining and transport, wildlife, and more, as Bob LeResche, Chair of the Powder River Basin Resource Council in Wyoming, noted:

“This is an historic action that is much needed and long overdue. It will ensure that the federal government receives a fair return for taxpayers and communities, and balances energy demand with the significant impacts coal creates to our air, land, water, and wildlife resources, and to the global climate, as well as generating important economic activity in our states. We applaud President Obama and Secretary Jewell for taking this action. Given what we know about coal’s costs, and given huge recent changes in the structure of the industry, it’s a critical time for the nation to pause the federal coal program and take fresh stock of the effects this program has on the environment and our communities.”

The Secretarial Order emphasizes the breadth of issues that should be considered in the review, through a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement.

Policymakers must start putting fossil fuel reserves off limits, and this could help start that process.

Addressing climate change is, of course, a massively complicated, “wicked” problem, with overlapping and contrasting ways of approaching the problems and their solutions. But it’s also possible to look at the essential problem through a simple lens: most of the world’s fossil fuel reserves simply cannot be burned.

And that’s particularly true of coal.

unburnable coal

Chart via IPCC.

But while global climate negotiators and other policymakers have grappled with difficult questions of historical responsibility, equity, transition, and funding when it comes to the global carbon budget, that has been almost entirely focused on carbon emissions . Policymakers have largely ignored the fossil fuel reserves that lead to those emissions.

And that has meant that even governments supposedly committed to climate solutions have nevertheless simultaneously promoted increased fossil fuel extraction, as George Monbiot at the Guardian summarized:

“The absence of official recognition of the role of fossil fuel production in causing climate change — blitheringly obvious as it is — permits governments to pursue directly contradictory policies. While almost all governments claim to support the aim of preventing more than 2C of global warming, they also seek to “maximise economic recovery” of their fossil fuel reserves.”

While climate policymakers have mostly ignored these questions about fossil fuel reserves, scientists have not been similarly constrained, and an important study published in Nature last year showed that more than 90 percent of U.S. coal reserves must remain in the ground, along with the vast majority of Canadian tar sands, all Arctic oil and gas, and more.

Analysts at Carbon Tracker have also produced detailed reports showing the most expensive and risky coal, oil and gas projects — those which are most likely to become stranded amidst global climate policies and other pressures.

Climate activists are increasingly focused on local, regional, and global efforts to limit new fossil fuel extraction and transport projects, under the “keep it in the ground” banner. And researchers have confirmed the effectiveness and importance of restricting fossil fuel supplies.

That’s why the moratorium and overhaul of the federal coal program is so important.

It signals that the Obama administration is finally beginning to approach fossil fuel extraction as part of its efforts to address climate change.

And critically, Secretary Jewell acknowledged that before this moratorium and overhaul, “our practice was really about getting as much coal as possible.” This is key because it shows an understanding that there really is no ‘neutral’ approach when it comes to how we manage many billions of tons of coal reserves — doing nothing would mean continuing to promote the subsidized extraction of federal coal.

Of course, much more is needed, including a similar review of the management of federal oil and gas, more attention and effort from other policymakers around fossil fuel extraction, and eventually, a more permanent approach to federal coal. Fortunately, the Obama administration’s moratorium and review of federal coal management could help with each of those.

And ultimately, any comprehensive and honest review of the federal coal program should confirm what scientists have already clearly explained — in order for the United States to meet its commitments and avoid catastrophic levels of global warming, the vast majority of our coal must remain in the ground.

This blog was cross-posted from Medium.

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