What Will It Take for Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to Keep Our Coal in the Ground?

by Annie Leonard

November 25, 2015

Coal-mining companies are increasingly requesting mine expansions to export coal through controversial Pacific Northwest port proposals.

Coal Mine Infrastructure

Coal separated from spoil pours off a conveyor belt at a processing plant.

© Les Stone / Greenpeace

This article was first published by the Seattle Times on November 22, 2015 and is re-posted here with permission. 

For far too long, the fossil fuel industry has gotten its way in Washington, DC by spending freely on lobbyists, and through enormous campaign contributions and misleading advertising.

From the halls of Congress to key federal agencies like the Interior Department, which manages our publicly owned fossil fuels, the industry’s influence has drowned out the voices of communities impacted by out-of-control fossil fuel expansion — whether from towns threatened by coal and oil trains or coastal communities at risk from offshore oil drilling and ocean acidification.

Yet as the climate movement grows and President Obama is determined to lead the world toward a strong climate change deal in Paris next week, we’re seeing hopeful signs that the fossil fuel industry’s grip on power and influence in Washington, DC may finally be weakening. Kayaktivists in Seattle and Portland faced down Shell’s Arctic drilling fleet, and helped turn the oil giant away from the Arctic. And Obama rejected the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, acknowledging, “We’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground.”

But despite these encouraging words from President Obama, it remains unclear whether Interior Secretary Sally Jewell will recognize the key role her agency must play in the fight against climate change. After all, 40 percent of the coal mined in the U.S., as well as huge amounts of oil and gas, actually belong to all of us and are managed by the Interior Department on our behalf.

But instead of choosing carefully how much, where and whether to let the fossil fuel industry drill and mine these public resources, too often the Interior Department has allowed industry to control the process. For example, coal-mining companies are increasingly requesting mine expansions, specifically to export our coal through controversial Pacific Northwest coal-export proposals, disrupting communities and fueling climate change. Yet Interior Department bureaucrats continue to rubber-stamp these coal-mine expansions without seriously considering the industry’s export plans, or even the inevitable carbon pollution from that coal when burned.

To be sure, these problems with our federal fossil fuel-leasing programs have persisted for decades, long before Jewell led the agency. Nevertheless, it is her responsibility and her prime moment to stop these outdated fossil fuel programs from undermining the efforts to address climate change that are being pursued by states, businesses and other parts of the federal government.

A key first step is stopping new lease sales of our public lands and waters to the fossil fuel industry.

Fossil fuel companies already hold far more reserves than should be burned if we hope to avoid the catastrophic impacts of global warming beyond 2 degrees Celsius. Keep in mind that Jewell’s boss, Obama, has formally committed the United States to meet this goal, and next week he will be urging other countries to make stronger commitments to help close the gap between what has been promised so far, and what climate scientists have found is needed. Those countries may very well turn around and ask what the United States, with the world’s largest coal reserves, is doing to make sure this coal remains in the ground.

President Obama’s efforts for global progress against climate change need the leadership of Secretary Jewell to limit the supply of federal fossil fuels.

Annie Leonard

By Annie Leonard

Annie Leonard is the co-Executive Director of Greenpeace USA. Leonard began her career at Greenpeace in 1988 and has returned to help the organization inspire and mobilize millions of people to take action to create a more sustainable future together. She is based in San Francisco.

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