6 Things You Need to Know About President Obama’s Coal Leasing Moratorium

by Diana Best

January 15, 2016

After years of hearing from you, the Interior Department will begin a massive overhaul of the federal coal program, including a halt on most new federal coal leasing.

Keep Coal in the Ground

Photo by Greenpeace.

On Friday morning, officials from the Obama administration made this huge announcement.

Wow! This is a historic day for the climate movement and an important part of a just transition towards a clean energy future.

What does it mean? Here are a few of the important details:

1) The moratorium is effective immediately.

This overhaul of the federal coal leasing program will come in the form of a programmatic review, which is expected to take about three years to complete. During that time, the Interior Department — the part of the administration responsible for the federal leasing program — has put a halt on new federal coal leases, with a few exceptions.

In effect, we have a moratorium in place that will keep billions of tons of coal in the ground.

2) This has big implications for the climate.

Federal coal leasing accounts for about 40 percent of total U.S. coal production. Coal mining in the Powder River Basin alone is responsible for 10 percent of all U.S. carbon pollution. Over the past seven years, the Interior Department has leased more than 2 billion tons of publicly owned coal.

This is coal owned by American taxpayers and intended to be managed in the “best interests of the nation.”

While we still have many steps to push for a climate-safe future, this pause on new leasing is an important opportunity to re-evaluate our relationship with our coal resources and realize that the best place for our publicly-owned fossil fuels is in the ground.

3) The federal coal leasing program hasn’t been updated in 30 years.

“We haven’t undertaken a comprehensive review of the program in more than 30 years, and we have an obligation to current and future generations to ensure the federal coal program delivers a fair return to American taxpayers and takes into account its impacts on climate change,” noted Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in a statement to press this morning.

Last time we updated our leasing program, we had a very different relationship with our national coal resources. Both internal federal investigations as well as reports from external advocates show that the federal coal leasing program has cost taxpayers and the climate dearly.

It was certainly time for an update.

4) Secretary Jewell has been hearing about this for years.

In fact, Greenpeace, along with 20 other organizations, wrote to Secretary Jewell on her first day on the job back in 2013 calling for a moratorium on new coal leasing and a comprehensive review of the federal coal leasing program.

Since then, she’s continuously heard from people all over the country. And she listened — in March 2015, she called for an “open and honest conversation to modernize the federal coal leasing program.” Her office hosted a series of listening sessions around the country. In total, the administration received more than 90,000 comments during that period.

This overhaul of the program is the direct result of years of pressure from activists like you. 

5) It is time for a just transition towards a new clean energy economy.

The financial landscape for the coal industry has changed dramatically in the last several years. Coal companies have lost more than 90 percent of their value since the global coal bubble in 2011, and many companies have declared bankruptcy due to collapsing demand, oversupply on the international market, cheap natural gas prices, and new environmental regulations.

But meanwhile, investments in renewable energy are soaring and creating a lot of new jobs. In fact, today more people work in the solar industry than the coal industry. But it’s important to recognize that moving away from fossil fuels will not be easy, and we hope to see elected officials at all levels support a just transition to renewable energy, including taking care of the communities that will need the most support along the way.

6) Post-Paris, this moratorium announcement signals a strong commitment from the U.S. to tackle global climate change.

Just a month after international climate negotiations in Paris, both China and the United States have announced bold steps to address domestic coal leasing. Both countries have committed to moratoriums on new mining permits. It is clear that President Obama will continue to keep climate a top priority for his Administration in his final year in office.

This is a huge victory that shows that the power of people vs the fossil fuel industry! But our work isn’t over. Let’s keep this momentum going to keep all fossil fuels in the ground!

Diana Best

By Diana Best

Diana Best is a senior climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace USA, based in Denver, Colorado. She began working with Greenpeace in 2008 on federal climate legislation and has since worked on reforming federal fossil fuel leasing programs and fighting new infrastructure projects around the United States. She is currently leading Greenpeace’s “Hold the Line” work aimed at halting the political and social influence of the oil industry during Trump’s administration.

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