Historic step pauses coal leasing on public lands

Coal mining in Wyoming's Powder River Basin.

Credit: ecoflight.

The Department of the Interior has begun a comprehensive, overdue review of the federal coal program and paused new coal leasing on public lands.

On Jan. 15, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and President Obama announced historic changes to the way the federal government leases coal on our nation’s public lands, pausing new coal leasing on public lands to take a hard look at the social, economic, and climate consequences of coal leasing decisions. This is big news!

We’ve known for decades that coal industry special interests have been in the driver’s seat when it comes to deciding where and when to lease American lands for coal mining. That’s led to mines with few safeguards for local communities, public resources, wildlife and the climate.

Adding insult to injury, producers pay far below market rates for the coal they take from federal land—and taxpayers (and local communities!) are on the hook for cleanup costs.

Thankfully, President Obama and Secretary Jewell have listened to westerners, and now we’re finally going to see some real reforms to our generation-old federal coal program. It’s a long overdue beginning to a conversation about policies that are broken and outdated and costing taxpayers millions of dollars in lost revenue every year.

We need coal reform now

It has been over 30 years since our government has taken a hard look at the way we lease coal on our public lands, and since then new technologies have emerged and our nation’s priorities have changed and we know more about coal’s impact on the climate than ever before. Today’s announcement signals a shift toward evaluating and planning coal leasing on our public lands through a process that is fit for the 21st century, not stuck in the distant past.

The Department of the Interior has also set up a way for all of us to see the actual carbon emissions from oil, gas, and coal developed on our shared public lands. This data will help the American people understand how to make our public lands part of the climate solution and inform the government how to truly account for the cost of developing fossil fuels on our shared lands.

We deserve transparency. We don’t deserve coal companies that sell to themselves at intentionally depressed prices to avoid royalties owed to the American public. And with decades of reserves under company control, we have a risk-free opportunity to take a hard look at how we move forward with this program. That’s a no-brainer!

These new reforms will change requirements for coal companies operating on public lands, a shift that will benefit the climate, taxpayers, wildlife, and of course America’s precious public lands. This is the beginning of an overdue conversation about making energy decisions for the 21st century.