Report: Coal mining on public lands to cost billions in climate damages over next 5 years

Alton Coal Mine (Utah).

Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance

A new report from The Wilderness Society shows heavy costs of coal mining on American wallets, lands and air if federal policy does not change in the next five years.

An earlier version of this report contained an error. The report misstated that climate damages would total 150 trillion in the next five years. The correct amount is 150 billion. 

Americans could face $150 billion in climate change-related damages due to the burning of coal if the federal coal leasing program is not reformed immediately, according to the new Wilderness Society report We can't wait: Why we need reform of the federal coal program now.

If nothing changes in the next five years, taxpayers could also pay for $10 billion in coal mining cleanup costs and lose $310 million in taxes to the broken leasing system that gives away public land to the coal industry for pennies on the dollar.

Report: We can’t wait: Why we need reform of the federal coal program now

The Wilderness Society has been working with the Interior Department to urge reform. In early 2016, the Obama Administration announced a historic pause on new coal leasing on public lands, and then the Interior Department took the crucial next step of conducting a review on our broken federal program, evaluating coal on public lands in terms of climate impacts and fair return to taxpayers.

During this review, Americans from different backgrounds voiced their support for reform at six public meetings across the nation, while—out of hundreds of thousands of comments submitted to the Interior Department through the formal review process—over 90 percent of those comments support change to the 30-year-old regulations.

The grave calculations from the report only underscore the urgent need to continue to push the Interior Department towards reforms as the review process continues. The current coal program is unjust to both American people—who own these lands—and the environment. Every day that we wait for change, we lose.

Here are five reasons we can’t wait to reform the broken federal coal system:

1. Environmental cleanup falls unjustly on the American people.

Coal companies are required to clean up, but they’re leaving huge messes behind. Coal mining is a destructive process—leveled trees and gaping pits leave a scarred and barren landscape that can’t sustain plants or wildlife. Strip mining in the Powder River Basin takes place on a great scale in the Thunder Basin National Grassland, driving away wildlife like pronghorn, elk, prairie dogs and the greater sage-grouse.

Pronghorn are one species driven away by expansive mining operations on public lands in the West. Credit: Chip Carroon

One condition of coal companies being able to lease public lands is they become responsible for cleaning it up. However, faced with competition from cheaper fuels, coal companies are declaring bankruptcy, allowing them to dump their debts and leave taxpayers and local communities on the hook for environmental cleanup—to the tune of nearly two billion dollars!

Cost in cleanup over the next five years (if nothing changes): Nearly $10 billion that will fall on taxpayers.


2. Ironically, the bankrupt coal industry demands more and more public land.

Coal companies are leasing more and more American lands for coal mining, making them inaccessible for public use and threatening wild landscapes. Even while the industry financially struggles to reclaim and restore the public land it already mines—more than 480,000 acres—it demands even more land. The industry is now seeking more than 80,000 acres for new mining—an area about the size of Arches National Park in Utah.   

National parks, like Bryce Zion National Park in Utah, could be impacted by the devastation of coal mining on its borders. Credit: Diana Robinson, flickr.

Even protected wild places, like national parks, aren’t safe from the impacts of public coal mines. For example, the expansion of the Alton Mine in southwestern Utah would prove disastrous for the nearby Bryce and Zion National Parks, as the destructive mining process could poison waterways, disturb wildlife and create an eyesore.

Cost to our wildlands over the next five years (if nothing changes): Potentially over 80,000 acres that could be leased for mining.


3. The price of public coal is artificially low, cheating taxpayers.

For the last 30 years, more than 16 reports have called for reform of the broken federal coal program. Loopholes, deductions and artificially low rates for public lands have distorted the market price of coal.

While prices for coal from private land in the eastern U.S. can be as high as $100 per ton, coal from public land in the West has been steady at $10 per ton, largely due to subsidies provided by the government.


The Bureau of Land Management needs to modernize energy development on public lands by raising royalty rates and holding competitive lease sales. Both of these reforms would help give millions of dollars back to taxpayers and help local communities by improving infrastructure and funding public service.

Cost to taxpayers over the next five years (if nothing changes): $310 million lost to a broken system, while coal companies continue to profit.


4. Pollution from burning public coal is a huge part of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Burning coal mined from public lands adds millions of tons of pollution to our air. Emissions from federal coal account for 10 percent of the U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and in 2012, it was estimated that the burning of federal coal resulted in 769 million metric tons of carbon dioxide—that equals the pollution from nearly 161 million cars driving on the road at one time!

Emissions from public lands, including those from burning coal, is estimated to account for 1/5 of the U.S. greenhouse gas footprint. Credit: John Horten, flickr.

During mining, methane gas trapped in coal seams is also released. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the short-term. Based on studies by the federal government and the United Nations, each ton of carbon released into the atmosphere costs roughly $36 in climate damages—from increasing natural disasters to decreasing crop yields.

Cost to the climate over the next five years (if nothing changes): $150 billion in damages brought on by burning coal and increasing our greenhouse gas footprint.


5. Coal mining pollutes and damages our waterways.

Not only does coal mining waste billions of gallons of water, but mining also causes irreversible damage to nearby waterways. Our waterways are critical to both wildlife and local communities, but coal mining puts water sources at great risk. Rivers and aquifers around the mining site become polluted with toxic heavy metals, while the mining process uses millions of water per day.  For example, the giant North Antelope Rochelle Mine in Wyoming poisons creeks that run through the grassland and drains aquifers that local ranchers and farmers rely on to survive.

Runoff from coal mines can turn water a reddish color due to unearthed toxins. Credit: Matt Wassan, Appalachian Voices.

The average mine in the West uses 10 gallons of water to process each ton of coal. For the nearly 470.8 million short tons of coal produced by federal coal mines in 2014, that means 4.7 billion gallons of water was used in one year alone. That’s enough to supply the water needs for the households of Billings, Montana for one year.

Cost to our water resources over the next five years (if nothing is changed): 23.5 billion gallons of water will be wasted—enough to fill New York’s Lake Placid.


The current state of the federal coal program is far too costly to the American people, environment and climate. If nothing changes, we are only cheating ourselves and the environment. We need to continue to push our government to take a good, hard look at our federal coal program or else pay the price with our pocketbooks and resources.