Why America needs the feds to reform coal now

Coal smokestack

Photo: Patrick, flickr.

The production of coal is harmful to the climate, and it is time to bring U.S. energy production on public lands into the 21st century.

Coal production on public lands has been an important part of the U.S. energy sector for almost a century. But today, we know that coal pollutes the air, harms people’s health, destroys landscapes and hastens climate change, not to mention that the production of coal on federal lands short changes taxpayers. 

Since 1920, coal mining companies have had access to coal on federal land through leases now managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Today, around 40% of U.S. coal is produced on public lands. Yet despite the nation’s effort to transition to a clean energy future, it has been more than 30 years since any significant changes have been made in the way we lease publicly-owned coal.

The White House and Interior Department are driving a modernization of energy development on public lands by transitioning away from dirty fossil fuels toward clean, renewable energy. To accelerate this transition, The Wilderness Society is pressing for reforms of the federal coal program.

Emissions from coal are unhealthy for both people and the planet. Photo: Emilian Robert Vicol, flickr.

For the first time in thirty years, the federal government is looking to amend the federal coal program. Last week, the Interior Department launched its programmatic review of coal production on public lands. This next step follows the recent pause of new coal leasing on public lands in January 2016 announced by Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. Among four new initiatives outlined to reform the federal coal program, a crucial component is analyzing the climate impacts of coal production on public lands.

The BLM proudly describes that the agency is responsible for coal leasing on approximately 570 million acres of federal land, bringing $683 million in revenue to the federal treasury in 2015 through coal leases. 

However, here are a few things the BLM have not mentioned about the current federal coal program:                 

1. The emissions from coal produced on public lands is estimated to be almost 12% of America’s annual energy-related, climate-polluting emissions.

2. The federal government gives away coal produced on public lands for a ridiculous price of less than two dollars per ton. Through deductions and loopholes, such as selling to subsidiaries, royalties collected by the BLM from coal mining companies are as low 4.9%, when the rate is supposed to be 12.5%.  

3. The largest companies mining publicly-owned coal already have 20 or more years of coal reserves under lease to exploit. This means that the leasing pause enacted by the Interior Department a few months ago should have little to no effect on everyday operations for most companies.

Energy production has changed dramatically since the 1920s as the U.S. transitions away from coal, and we are more acutely aware of the damaging impacts of coal on human health, our wild lands and the climate. 

The market for coal is declining. We are seeing less coal sold, and it is becoming economically unwise to continue to allow coal companies to function as they did a century ago. The Interior Department needs to put guidelines in place that protect public lands and taxpayers from the greed of the coal industry as the coal market continues to decline.

It is time to align the federal coal program with our nation’s climate goals. We need to protect wildlands from future coal leasing and ensure that taxpayers receive a fair return for the development of these public resources. Now is the time to act and reform a program that desperately needs to be brought into the 21st century and to lay the groundwork for how we see energy development proceeding on public lands.