5 reasons Americans must speak up to fix our broken coal program

The expansive Black Thunder Coal Mine, Wyoming. 

Photo: Ecoflight, flickr.

The American people should have a voice when it comes to public lands, so we need you to speak up about the federal coal program!

In early 2016, the Obama Administration announced a pause on all new coal leasing on public lands, to be followed by a review of the federal coal program. The pause was a much needed step: the federal coal program is a significant contributor to climate change, and its structure has allowed coal companies to place the well-being of executives over those of taxpayers and local communities for far too long.

Read testimonials from Americans across the nation on why we need to reform coal and take care of our public lands

This pause also gives the federal government the chance to assess the true costs of a coal program, that hasn’t been evaluated on a large scale since President Nixon sat in the Oval Office, to the lands, taxpayers and the climate.

1. Coal from public lands has been given away for pennies on the dollar for decades.

Coal companies have acquired hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands for next to nothing at the expense of taxpayers and local economies. 

For nearly a decade, coal companies have been incentivized by rock-bottom prices to develop public lands resources. We need to stop these ridiculous giveaways. Since 2000, the federal government pays mere cents to mine on public lands. For example in Colorado, coal companies bid an average of 23 cents per ton to mine coal on public lands—that’s nearly 17 tons for the price of a Big Mac!

In western states, coal companies pay absurdly little to mine coal on public lands. Credit: Center for Western Priorities.

Coal companies are exploiting this antiquated system. Around 40 percent of coal comes from public lands, with nearly 90 percent of federal coal coming from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana. If nothing changes, the destruction of wild lands will continue, as coal companies and executives continue to profit from outdated, artificially low prices.

2. Coal mining greatly impacts our lands and companies do not take cleanup seriously.

Decades of mining in the West have left thousands of acres dug up and stripped, waterways polluted with soil and contaminants and wildlife driven away by dust and noise pollution.

Coal companies are going bankrupt, leaving taxpayers and Western communities on the hook to deal with clean up from coal mining. Coal companies are supposed to ensure they have enough funding for environmental cleanup before beginning a new mining operation. Since coal was such a lucrative business decades ago, many companies were allowed to put up their own corporate value as collateral in a process called “self-bonding.” With coal companies now going bankrupt, this means that the funds for clean-up will never come and acres of wild lands could remain forever scarred. 

Wildlife, like these migrating pronghorn antelope, are threatened when coal companies do not clean up mine sites. Photo: Tom Koerner/USFWS.

According to annual reports by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, only 14 percent of all land disturbed by mining in many western states has been totally reclaimed. With the Bureau of Land Management responsible for coal leasing on nearly 570 million acres of land, wildlife habitat for elk, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, wild turkeys and greater sage-grouse is at risk of being irreversibly altered to make way for expansive mines. 

3. Outdated practices allow the coal industry to take advantage of our public lands.

The coal industry has acted as though federal lands, and the resources below them, belong to them, instead of to the American people.

With over 475,000 acres currently under lease for coal mining and 3.25 million acres under lease for oil and gas drilling, we have seen a pattern of the fossil fuel industry dictating what is done on public lands. While some public lands, like national parks, designated wilderness and wildlife refuges are protected, millions more acres are open to fossil fuel leasing and vulnerable to irreparable destruction.

Outdated policies allow industry to hoard land that could be protected through conservation efforts. Credit: Max Greenberg/TWS.

The changes in the economic and energy landscape, especially in the West, as well as our better understanding of climate impacts, need to be reflected in how we manage our public lands. We need to speak up to ensure that our lands are managed in the best way possible for generations to come.

4. Coal burned from public lands contributes 13 percent of greenhouse gases emissions.

Coal mined on public lands is a major contributor to climate climate, and we need federal agencies to carefully consider this fact as they plan how these lands are used.

Mining, transporting and burning coal is harmful to our land, air and water. In 2015, burning coal was the leading source of carbon dioxide emissions from the U.S. power sector, with nearly 1.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted, equivalent to one-third the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by all the world’s cars in one year. Along with carbon dioxide, tons of pollutants like sulfur dioxide, mercury and other heavy metals enter our atmosphere every year from burning coal and contribute to air pollution, smog and acid rain.

Burning coal is top contributor to greenhouse gas emissions that exacerbate climate change. Photo: WildEarth Guardians, flickr.

As part of the 2015 Paris agreement, the U.S. is committed to reducing carbon emissions and keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. But right now, coal on public lands is part of a “blind spot” in managing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions; energy extracted from public lands accounts for more than 1/5 of the greenhouse gas footprint in the U.S., and over of half of that footprint is from coal. 

5. As the market for coal declines, we need to reconsider the energy landscape on public lands.

As a nation we are moving towards cleaner energy and need to consider how America's public lands play into this future. 

Coal demand has fallen steadily in nearly every state since 2007, and many coal companies are going bankrupt. Since 2009, the amount of renewable energy on public lands has grown by nearly 900 percent. We need to continue to look towards more modern, less-polluting forms of energy instead of flooding the market with ridiculously low-priced  federal coal  that only harms the environment and scars landscapes.

The growth of renewable energy shows the shift towards cleaner energy on public lands. Photo: BLM Oregon/Washington.

The pause of coal leasing and review of the federal coal program is an opportunity for us to reflect on how we want to protect our wild lands while moving towards cleaner forms of energy, like wind, solar and geothermal.