Overhaul of federal coal leasing needed to address climate change

Credit: Kentucky Photo File, flickr.

It is time to overhaul the system behind the leasing of federal coal and take the impact of coal emissions seriously.

Editor's Note: Chase Huntley is the Director of the Energy & Climate Program at The Wilderness Society, working in the public policy and public lands departments to develop and evaluate policy options for sustainably managing energy production on public lands in the face of a changing climate.

Two months ago, the administration and the Department of the Interior (DOI) made history by taking responsibility for confronting rapid changes in market demand and decades-old deficiencies in the way coal is leased and developed on federal lands. They instituted a pause on new leasing and kicked off a comprehensive review that will set new terms for where, how and even whether to develop federal coal resources. This also initiates a first-ever commitment to measure and address the carbon consequences associated with leasing and burning federal coal, which accounts for nearly 40 percent of total US production and an estimated 10 percent of all US climate emissions.

However, this week, that commitment was called into question in briefs filed on a four-year old legal battle which centers on federal coal leases in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. The full story is complicated, but here is a synopsis. In 2010, DOI finalized its review of 4 new coal leases that would turn over 2.3 billion tons of coal for private development. At the time, this sale was groundbreaking in that the BLM actually calculated what that amount of coal means in terms of climate emissions. Despite that staggeringly large figure, the leases were approved, prompting a lawsuit on the grounds that the climate impacts were inadequately analyzed and ineffectively addressed. That claim was rejected and the plaintiffs appealed the ruling.

The legal issues in the case matter, and we look forward to seeing the court’s judgement. However, this case reveals exactly why the federal coal program is so desperately in need of an overhaul, and why a national commitment to track and reduce carbon is ultimately required to bring energy leasing activities in line with national climate targets. The federal coal leasing system cannot hope to adequately address climate change issues or other deficiencies without establishing a new set of priorities.  

Coal mining should take carbon consequences into consideration. Credit: Emilian Robert Vilco, flickr.

The administration’s effort to build a coherent and systemic approach to leasing and planning federal coal is long overdue. Interior’s comprehensive review will allow the American public to engage in an open conversation about aligning the federal coal program with modern values, current science, improved market understanding and changing usage of our shared public lands. Done right, this effort can ensure a sustainable system that will avoid situations such as the one currently before the court. To truly understand the implications of planning and leasing decisions, the administration and the public (who own the land and the resources) need access to much better data and information.
The Wilderness Society has been advocating for a carbon measurement system that would take into account and begin to understand the carbon consequences of fossil fuel development today and how it impacts our future. A successful carbon accounting system should also enable informed decisions that align with both our nation’s energy needs and our national climate goals.
We are witnessing a fundamental transformation in the way our public lands help power our nation. Renewable energy projects are becoming a standard part of business on public lands, with enough wind, solar and geothermal to power 6 million homes. Advancements in clean energy must be accompanied with efforts to reduce the climate consequences of fossil fuel energy development. Ongoing efforts to reduce the climate burden of existing production is an essential step, as are new policies and tools to understand and act on the carbon consequences that result from leasing and production. A systemic problem needs a systemic solution, and the administration’s commitment to addressing it will be borne out in the coming months in the coal reform process.