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Federal Coal Leasing Undermining Obama’s Climate Goals

Coal mining on public lands could wipe out power plant reforms, Greenpeace report finds

A report published today by Greenpeace highlights a growing contradiction in government policies on one of the dirtiest of fossil fuels: coal. In June, the Obama administration announced a plan to crack down on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. Meanwhile, the federal Bureau of Land Management has continued to quietly lease publicly owned coal seams to mining corporations at deeply discounted prices. These rock-bottom rates have helped drive a push for expanded exports of American coal, and they risk wiping out the benefits of President Obama's new greenhouse gas controls.

coal minePhoto by eastcoalfax/FlickrThe Bureau of Land Management has leased 2.2 billion tons of coal on public lands, roughly equivalent to more than 3.9 billion metric tons of carbon when burned.

"Without major changes, the federal coal leasing program will continue to undermine federal, state, and international efforts to reduce carbon pollution," said the report, Leasing Coal, Fueling Climate Change.

The president's power plant rules are expected to cut 500-million metric tons of climate-changing carbon dioxide a year by 2030. But the Greenpeace report concluded that under the Obama administration, the Bureau of Land Management has leased 2.2 billion tons of coal on public lands, roughly equivalent to more than 3.9 billion metric tons of carbon when burned. About 98 percent of the leases are on public land in just two states — Wyoming and Montana, home to the massive Power River Basin coal deposits.

"This [climate change] is a huge crisis that the president of the United States has said we're working to address, and at the same time you have this relatively low-profile program that is undermining these larger goals," said Joe Smyth, a Greenpeace spokesperson.

The Obama administration has touted the climate change mitigation benefits of America's recent shale gas rush, noting that, when burned, natural gas releases only half as much CO2 as coal. But the president's all-of-the-above energy policy — which has promoted the development of shale oil, shale gas and coal alongside renewables — risks a double-whammy for the climate. Not only does natural gas development cause leaks of methane (another powerful greenhouse gas, which some scientists warn may make burning natural gas worse for the climate than relying on coal), but much of the coal that was burned domestically in the past is now being shipped abroad, where its low price could undermine a needed transition to wind and solar. The US holds the world's largest coal deposits, and 40 percent of coal mined here comes from public land, so the potential market impact is large.

"The last thing places like Europe need is a big new supply of American coal, subsidized by the US taxpayer," Smyth said.

In fact, while the US has moved to reduce the amount of coal burned domestically, worldwide coal use grew 3 percent last year, more than any other fossil fuel, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

At times, the decisions made by a single Bureau of Land Management field office may be more consequential for the climate than major initiatives pursued by the Obama administration at a national level, according to Greenpeace. For example, one Wyoming BLM field office has proposed a coal lease plan that will allow an estimated 10.2 billion tons of coal to be mined. "That would mean this BLM field office expects to lease coal that would unlock an estimated 16.9 billion metric tons of carbon pollution," the Greenpeace report said. "In comparison, the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan is expected to reduce carbon pollution by 5.3 billion metric tons between 2020 and 2030, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council."

The Greenpeace report also tallies the money paid to the US Treasury for allowing mining against the projected costs of damages associated with carbon pollution from that coal. The numbers are striking: since President Obama took office, coal lease sales have earned the government roughly $2.3 billion in revenue. But Greenpeace estimates that the carbon pollution from that coal will cause between $52 billion and $530 billion in damages, based on federal estimates for the social costs of carbon.

In other words, a ton of coal that is expected to cause between $22 and $207 worth of damage is currently being leased by the Bureau of Land Management for $1.03 on average.

"Right now none of that is taken into account," Smyth said. "The [government] is leasing for incredibly low prices, there's no way they're taking into account the damages that coal causes."

Sharon Kelly
Sharon Kelly is a Philadelphia-based lawyer and freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Legal Intelligencer.

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“There’s no such thing as “clean coal.” It’s a ploy by coal companies to keep selling the biggest cause of climate change, and a distraction from the real clean energy.”

By ray delcle on Wed, July 30, 2014 at 6:00 am

“Grownups don’t believe in the tooth fairy because she doesn’t exist. And grownups don’t believe in clean coal, because it doesn’t exist either. Wind and solar are real clean energy technologies that create both reliable energy and jobs.”

By ray delcolle on Tue, July 29, 2014 at 3:55 pm

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