Obama halts new federal coal leases (to avoid climate change)

  • Published on January 17th, 2016

By Meteor Blades

Climate activists get to celebrate a victory in the war on coal Friday. Not the final victory by fossil fuels and coala long shot, but progress nonetheless. President Obama will announce that there will be no new coal leasing on public lands until the government completes an overhaul of the program.

That could produce anything from simply mandating higher royalties for energy companies to ending public land leasing altogether. Of course, short of congressional legislation, what one administration can put into place its successors can take away. Coral Davenport reports:

The move would represent a significant setback for the coal industry, effectively freezing new coal production on federal lands and sending a signal to energy markets that could turn investors away from an already flailing industry. President Obama telegraphed the step in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, saying, “I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet.” […]

“It appears that they’re going after the federal coal leasing program with the intention of keeping coal in the ground,” said Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association.

Around half the nation’s reserves of fossil fuel are on federal lands or off shore, as is about 40 percent of the coal, much of it in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana. Coal from the basin accounts for about 10 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. If all those fossil fuels were excavated and burned, it would add 319 to 450 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) to the nation’s emissions. Just burning the coal on federal lands not yet leased would account for 36 percent to 43 percent of those emissions—115 to 212 GtCO2e.

The leasing moratorium will, to be sure, represent a coal-industry setback. But mining under current coal leases will not be ended. And there’s enough of those to keep up the current pace of production on federal lands for 20 years or so. The leasing program fees of $3 an acre plus a 12.5 percent royalty on the market price of strip-mined coal brought $1.2 billion into the federal Treasury in 2014. Critics, including the Government Accountability Office, say these payments are far too low.

But while many environmentalists want to see a fee or tax imposed to cover the “social cost of carbon”—such as the health effects of burning coal, which kill thousands of people each year—getting more money for new coal leases is not what activists seek.

The announcement of the moratorium is a bit of a surprise given dismissive remarks made four months ago by Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell. More about that in a moment.

Many traditional environmentalists were highly critical of the fight to stop the Keystone XL pipeline from being built. They griped that the effort was too limited in scope in the face of other climate threats, too confrontational, too unnoticing of the increase in oil trains and the building of other pipelines, and, worst of all, destined for failure.

But years before the decision to reject KXL came down from the White House last November, leading organizations in the broad coalition of activists opposing the pipeline had proved they were anything but narrowly focused. They were instead intensely engaged in developing fresh tactics or updating old ones against various fossil fuel targets in order to take climate activism to the next level.

Among these were the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, started in 2010 with a goal of shutting down 500 electricity-generating coal plants in 10 years. At the halfway mark, 225 have been shuttered.

Then there was the ongoing fossil-fuel divestment campaign initiated by Bill McKibben in his 2012 Rolling Stone commentary, Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” There he stated that fossil-fuel companies have five times as much oil, coal, and gas in their reserves than the climate can stand for us to extract and burn. Since then, the divestment campaign—loosely based on the anti-apartheid divestment campaign of the 1980s—has gotten 500 institutionsto commit to divesting themselves of $3.4 trillion in fossil fuel holdings.

A new group, the Keep It In Ground Coalition, which includes 350,org, the Sierra Club, and Friends of the Earth, got underway late last summer with public land leasing as its first target. In September, the coalition wrote a letter to Obama seeking an end to fossil-fuel leasing.

While more hopeful since President Obama’s June 2013 climate change speech, climate hawks have not been thrilled by many of the administration’s fossil-fuel related actions on public lands. Among other things, they pointed out in the letter, “Your administration alone has leased nearly 15 million acres of public land and 21 million acres of ocean for fossil fuel industrialization.”

In a response to that letter a couple of weeks after it was received, Secretary Jewell, who job includes overseeing agencies in charge of public land where energy resources are drilled and mined, told reporters at a forum sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor: “We are a nation that continues to be dependent on fossil fuels.”

“Right now, we are sitting under lights that are most likely powered by coal, in the East,” she told reporters. “Maybe some of you walked here, but most of you probably burned some fossil fuels in one way or another to get here. There are millions of jobs in this country that are dependent on these industries, and you can’t just cut it off overnight and expect to have an economy that is, in fact, the leader in the world.”

Nobody is saying we should cut off fossil fuels overnight. But activists are demanding that the pace of the nation’s energy transition be greatly accelerated. That is essential if Americans truly expect our nation to be a world leader in staving off the worst impacts of climate change. Ending new public land leases is obviously just one element of this leadership. It matters because it’s a step in the right direction, but it’s only one step of the very many that are needed.

Small wonder activists want to keep that stuff in the ground. But the public leasing moratorium does not include the oil and natural gas reserves. That has to happen too. As for existing leases, they need to be ended as well. With enough activist pressure, the market may help on that score as investors see the handwriting on the wall. It reads: There is no future for fossil fuels.

(Originally appeared at DailyKos. Image by Eco-Shift Consulting.)

About the Author

Meteor Blades is a writer and contributing editor at DailyKos. He believes there is something profoundly wrong with our system. - the unchecked accumulation of wealth and power into the hands of a very small group of corporate business interests has contributed to the wholesale corruption of our political system. For an understanding about the level of corruption in our country, he encourages you to view these two PBS documentaries: (1). ,The Untouchables; (2) The United States of ALEC.