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New lawsuit challenges Interior Departments failure to consider climate impacts of coal leasing program

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November 25, 2014

The federal coal leasing program is facing additional scrutiny, as the Western Organization of Resource Councils, Friends of the Earth, and the Paul Allen Foundation launch a new legal challenge to require the Interior Department to pursue a comprehensive review of the program, including its role in fueling the climate crisis.

There is an inconsistency between the Presidents declared policy on global warming and the coal leasing policy of the BLM, said Ben Schreiber, Climate and energy program director at Friends of the Earth. The lawsuit is saying, under the law, the BLM must provide an updated programmatic environmental impact statement that examines the contribution of mining and combustion of BLM coal to climate change and consider alternative energy policy options that would help reduce global warming.

The federal government’s failure to properly consider the environmental impacts of the coal leasing program is especially glaring when you consider just how much coal and carbon pollution were talking about. For our recent report Leasing Coal, Fueling Climate Change, we calculated that just since the beginning of the Obama administration, the Interior Department has leased 2.2 billion tons of publicly owned coal, unlocking 3.9 billion metric tons of carbon pollution – equivalent to the annual emissions of over 825 million passenger vehicles, and more than was emitted in the entire European Union in 2012. And the program has been selling our coal for cheap for decades, without any serious review for over 30 years!

In other legal challenges, the Interior Department has tried to argue that any particular coal lease in question won’t have a significant impact on the climate, because utilities will just get the coal from somewhere else. While this is obviously a morally bankrupt argument, it is also laughably wrong for several reasons – but perhaps most blatantly because selling publicly owned coal at subsidized rates provides an advantage to coal in competition with cleaner forms of energy. Of course that advantage has been eroded somewhat in recent years as solar and wind energy drop in price, coal extraction costs rise, and a glut of natural gas encourages utilities to switch away from coal. But those trends in turn reinforce the (very obvious) point that the price of different electricity generation sources impacts what utilities use. So selling huge quantities of publicly owned coal for around one dollar a ton just encourages more coal burning, and slows efforts by states, businesses, and individuals to move toward clean energy.

In fact, that’s what a federal court in Colorado found this June, in a landmark ruling in favor of WildEarth Guardians, the Sierra Club, High Country Conservation Advocates, and Earthjustice, that blocked Arch Coals efforts to expand its access to publicly owned coal. Specifically rejecting the Interior Departments excuse that the same amount of coal will be burned whether or not this particular coal lease is approved, the federal judge wrote: (page 30)

The production of coal in the North Fork exemption will increase the supply of cheap, low-sulfur coal. At some point this additional supply will impact the demand for coal relative to other fuel sources, and coal that otherwise would have been left in the ground will be burned.

The Interior Departments efforts to argue that a particularcoal lease wont impact the climate are already embarrassingly weak, and have been rejected by a federal court. It will be interesting to see how the Interior Department approaches this lawsuit, focused on the entire federal coal leasing program – remember, this is the source of 40% of US coal, and one BLM field office iscurrently considering a regional management plan that assumes 10billion tons of coal will be leased in the coming years from just one portion of the Powder River Basin.That would unlock nearly 17 billionmetric tons of carbon pollution, far more than the reductions expected under the EPA’sClean Power Plan all the way out to 2030.

Coal Leasing

Can anyone argue with a straight face that the management of some of the largest coal reserves in the world doesn’t impactthe climate? It’s well past time for the Interior Department to pursue a comprehensive review ofthe coal leasing program, including how it is undermining efforts to address climate change.

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