The Only Fair Return is Keeping Coal in the Ground

After years of rebuffing calls for change (and even highly visible endorsements of more coal production from former Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar), the U.S. Department of the Interior and Interior Secretary, Sally Jewell, are engaging the American public in an “honest conversation” about how to reform the management of our publicly owned coal.

It’s a watershed moment in the history of the Interior Department and the federal coal program, and a refreshingly welcome sign that the agency is finally starting to take seriously the need to stop rubberstamping more coal mining in the U.S.

After all, the Interior Department directly oversees the production of more than 40% of our nation’s coal, the vast majority of which comes from extensive publicly owned deposits in the western U.S.  When burned, this coal produces more than 11% of our nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions, a distressingly odd situation considering the Obama Administration’s express commitment to combating climate change.

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Coal train hauling a load south out of the Powder River Basin of Wyoming.

The federal coal program also stands in stark contrast to the President’s signature climate accomplishment, the Clean Power Plan, which was finalized by the Environmental Protection Agency earlier this month.  Even middle of the road environmental groups like The Wilderness Society have described the federal coal program as a “blind spot” in our nation’s plans to curb carbon emissions.

Yet in moving forward with its “honest conversation,” there seems to be a lack of forthrightness from the Interior Department.  Rather than come clean and tell the American public that its reform efforts are about the fate of our publicly owned coal, they’re couching reform in terms of “fair return,” asking the public, for example, to provide comment on royalty rates, fair market value, and how to ensure greater competition when leasing.

Everybody loves a “fair return,” no doubt, but from a climate perspective, the only way the American public public gets a fair return from coal is when it’s kept in the ground.

We all know this.  It’s why as the Interior Department has engaged in a series of “listening sessions” in the western U.S., the agency has been overwhelmed with comments and concerns about the future of coal.  Like last week in Gillette, Wyoming, the heart of the Powder River Basin, the nation’s largest coal producing region, where people overwhelmingly called on Interior to consider the future of their community.

The folks in Gillette get it.  This isn’t about reaping more money for taxpayers, this is about figuring out how to get to keeping it in the ground.  As I remarked:

“We can’t keep mining and burning coal and have any chance of meaningfully reducing carbon emissions and combating climate change….The reality is we have to move beyond coal and we have to leave it in the ground.”

That’s why as the Interior Department’s “honest conversation” has unfolded, WildEarth Guardians has aimed for the heart of what matters here.  In a report released earlier this month, we presented our plan for how the agency can get to a point where our coal is kept in the ground and our climate protected.  The plan includes five key milestones, including:

  1. A moratorium on leasing more coal;
  2. Retiring existing leases that are not producing;
  3. Recovering carbon costs as coal is produced;
  4. Honestly reporting to the American public on the true climate impacts of the federal coal program; and
  5. Helping communities dependent on publicly owned coal transition to more sustainable and prosperous economies.

By our measure, within 10-25 years, we can end the federal coal program by following this path.

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Certainly, it won’t be easy.  Helping communities like Gillette transition away from coal will require immense leadership from the Interior Department and a commitment from Congress and other agencies to provide the resources to make it happen.  As coal companies continue to go bankrupt, don’t expect any help from them.

Of course, that’s assuming consensus builds around the need for transition.  Even though communities like Gillette understand that Interior’s reform efforts are really about the fate of coal, they deny, adamantly, that this fossil fuel has no role in our future.  In fact, Wyoming Governor Matt Mead called on the Interior Department to “Keep coal profitable.”

It’s bizarre.  With agreement over the role of coal in fueling climate change, scientific studies confirming that coal has to be kept in the ground, mounting evidence that more carbon emissions are costing our nation and our world dearly, and even ongoing federal court rulings against Interior for failing to address the climate impacts of more mining, the writing is on the wall.

Coal is going to go away, whether Gillette likes it or not.  Denying this reality, or worse deceiving people into believing this fallacy, is nothing short of reckless.

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Coal silos in Powder River Basin of Wyoming.

In the meantime, the Interior Department’s coal reform listening sessions are wrapping up this week in Denver and Farmington, New Mexico.  WildEarth Guardians will be there in force telling Interior to keep it in the ground.  Join us if you can, we’ll be rallying beforehand and spreading the word.  Here’s more info. on the Denver and the Farmington hearings.

And if you can’t attend a hearing, sign our petition calling on Interior Secretary, Sally Jewell, to keep our coal in the ground.  It’s our future, let’s speak out for it!

We can’t buy our way out of global warming.  The only fair return is to keep our coal in the ground.

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Feds Seriously Moving to Adopt Arch Coal Loophole

One would think that in the face of mounting controversy over the Obama Administration’s massive climate blind spot, the federal government would start to show some restraint when it comes to approving fossil fuel development on public lands.

Instead, they’ve done the complete opposite.  Not only that, but a new proposal from the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Interior signals they’re aiming for the worst, a scheme to sacrifice nearly 20,000 acres of wild forest lands to appease Arch Coal.

The proposal comes in the aftermath of a landmark court ruling that overturned a loophole allowing coal mining in National Forest roadless areas in western Colorado.  A dubious giveaway, the loophole opened up thousands of acres of protected lands for coal mining near the iconic West Elk Mountains.  Even worse, it opened the door for coal companies to develop methane venting wells.  Far from harmless, the venting is devastating for the climate and has already transformed public lands in the area into a de facto gas field.

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Methane venting well with West Elk Mountains in background.

Thankfully, last summer a federal judge held that when adopting the loophole the Departments of Agriculture and Interior illegally failed to account for the climate impacts of expanded mining near the iconic West Elk Mountains.  The order dealt an especially significant blow to Arch Coal, which planned to target 350 million tons of new coal mining in the area.

More importantly, it opened the door for the Agriculture and Interior Departments to get it right on climate.  Instead of deferring to the status quo and letting the fossil fuel industry get its way on our pubic lands, the order created an unprecedented opportunity for these agencies to finally say “no.”

Sadly, instead of seizing the opportunity, it appears the agencies remain intent on sacrificing our public lands at the expense of our climate.

In a notice today, the Department of Agriculture, with the Department of the Interior “cooperating,” announced it intends to restore the coal mining loophole, opening up 19,100 acres of protected National Forest lands for coal mining and putting Arch Coal’s plans back on the rails.

The proposal takes climate hypocrisy to dangerous new heights (or should it be lows?).  Not only would it pave the way for more coal mining, it stands to unleash nearly half a billion tons of carbon.  Worse, it would do so by giving away our protected public lands to a single coal company.

That latter point can’t be emphasized enough.  The only other company that could possibly benefit from the loophole is currently shut down and has no plans to reopen.  This leaves Arch as the sole beneficiary, truly making it the “Arch Coal Loophole.”

The corrupt optics aside, while it may not be blatant climate denial, giving away our public lands to a coal company sure comes close.

The fact that the Agriculture and Interior Departments have even proposed the Arch Coal Loophole is troubling (after all, it means they’re already squandering taxpayer dollars for the benefit of Arch), but hopefully they’ll come to their senses and change course.

In the meantime, check out this video to see what’s at stake on the ground in western Colorado.  It’s a few years old, but as fresh as ever.  Enjoy!

Interior Truly Denies Climate Change

Although the U.S. Interior Department’s ongoing approval of fossil fuel development on our public lands speaks volumes to the agency’s refusal to combating climate change, it sure helps to have words convey how the Department really feels.

In response to concerns raised by WildEarth Guardians over the climate impacts of open public lands for fracking in Utah, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management made clear, in no uncertain terms, its denial over climate change.  In spite of virtually unanimous scientific consensus, years of study and confirmation by climate scientists throughout the world, and despite even the President’s own acknowledgement that no challenge poses a greater threat to our future than climate change, the Bureau of Land Management says there is “substantial” disagreement and uncertainty over climate change.

Actions speak louder than words, but words certainly add clarity.  At the Interior Department, climate denial is clearly in full force and effect.

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Read for yourself the agency’s response in their own purported “environmental assessment” on pages 62-63 (they also say the same thing on page 68 of this “environmental assessment“).

And think this is just an anomaly?  As reported here before, the Interior Department’s track record on acknowledging and taking responsibility for the climate impacts of fossil fuel development is about as ugly as it gets and includes dismissing carbon costs, extolling the climate benefits of renewable energy while completely ignoring the massive amount of greenhouse gas emissions released by oil, gas, and coal development on public lands, and Sally Jewell herself implicitly denying the climate implications of more fossil fuel development.

It’s been bad, but clearly it’s getting worse at Interior.  With the agency’s now explicit denial of climate change, it’s clear that the Department of the Interior may be the biggest single impediment to climate progress in the Obama Administration.

UPDATE:  Earlier this week, WildEarth Guardians directly challenged the Interior Department’s climate denial, filing protests to overturn the agency’s latest oil and gas leasing plans.  With Sally Jewell also this week now saying that “cutting carbon pollution” should inform Interior Department decisions, there’s no way these latest oil and gas leasing plans can be justified.

New Greenhouse Gas Data: Carbon Creeping Up and Methane Still Underestimated

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency yesterday released its annual report on greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s largest sources of pollution, revealing that we still have enormous progress to make in cutting carbon.

The big bombshell was that in 2013, greenhouse gas emissions actually increased.  That’s right, increased.  Not only that, but the increase was tied to increased coal burning.

It’s a shameful reminder of how the fossil fuel industry continues to dig our nation deeper into climate debt.  With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calling for a 40-70% reduction in carbon emissions below 2010 levels by mid-century, the last thing we need is an increase in emissions.  It underscores that the fossil fuel industry’s resistance to limiting its pollution needs to be countered more fiercely than ever if we have any hope of making progress.

This is especially the case with regards to methane.  Sure, the EPA yesterday hyped its claim that methane emissions from fracking have decreased 73% since 2011.  But as Bobby Magill at Climate Central noted, the agency’s report fails to fully account for methane leaks at oil and gas wells, which studies have found can approach 12% in some regions.

What’s more, EPA’s data relies on a faulty assumption that methane has a global warming potential of 25.  The global warming potential is a measure of how potent a greenhouse gas is compared to carbon.  Yet as we reported before, the latest findings from the IPCC indicate that over a 20-year timeframe, methane actually has a global warming potential of 86.

In other words, the world’s leading body of climate scientists say that one ton of methane equals 86 tons of carbon dioxide.

For EPA’s report, it means that estimates of carbon dioxide equivalency associated with methane are more than half a billion metric tons too low, an error of 70%.  The EPA may be correct that there was a reduction in methane since 2011, but with such grossly inaccurate emissions reported, it seems like the hole we’re trying to dig out of is just getting deeper (this is confirmed by the latest studies finding that more fracking for gas not only won’t reduce carbon emissions, but will also undermine renewable energy).

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Total methane emissions reported by EPA in 2013 and carbon dioxide equivalency based on a global warming potential of 25 and 86. The difference is more than half a billion tons of carbon.

Another bombshell is that underground coal mine methane emissions increased by nearly 25% between 2012 and 2013.  The industry reported methane emissions equal to 41 million metric tons of carbon in 2013 (of course, with a global warming potential of 86, it would actually be more than 141 million metric tons).

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Coal mine methane emissions increased by nearly 25% between 2012 and 2013.

No matter how you slice it, though, the data shows that coal mines are responsible for nearly 20% of all methane emissions in the U.S., a staggering figure.

In case you’re wondering, where these gassy coal mines are located, the majority are in Appalachia, but a few mines in the West–namely the San Juan mine in northwestern New Mexico, the Westridge mine in Utah, and Arch Coal’s West Elk mine in Colorado–made the top 20.  The top emitter, the Walter Energy mine in Alabama, reportedly released nearly 5 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.  That’s more than an average coal-fired power plant.   Here’s the full list of gassy mines >>  

More than anything, the latest greenhouse gas reporting data confirms that we can’t afford to delay carbon reductions.  It’s why last week, WildEarth Guardians joined a coalition of organizations in calling on the Obama Administration to stay firm in its commitment to curtail methane from oil and gas operations, and it’s why we’re digging in more aggressively than ever on our challenges to more coal mining and burning, and more fracking, in the American West.

We have major challenges ahead, but also major opportunities.  It’s time to step it up.

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The San Juan Generating Station in northwestern New Mexico is fueled by the San Juan coal mine, one of the top emitters of coal mine methane in the United States. WildEarth Guardians just filed an opening brief in federal court to stop an expansion of this mine.

Climate March Makes History; Fossil Fuel Ban is the Future

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Marching in front of the Museum of Natural History so that we can have a natural future.

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A bunch of smart kids that realize their future depends on what we do now on fossil fuels.

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Among the thousands of voices, Guardians made sure the role of public lands was part of the message.

On September 21st, 400,000 people marched in New York City to tell U.S. and world leaders that we want strong action to stop global warming, and we want it now. It was the largest political march in the U.S. in over a decade and by far the largest march on the climate issue ever.

 

In addition to its absolutely massive size, the march was unique for bringing so many voices together. Along with the rich and famous were peasants from Bangladesh and the impoverished from the Bronx. Climate was recognized as a gender issue, a class issue, a race issue, and an intergenerational equity issue.

 

WildEarth Guardians was there to make sure people understand that global warming is also a public lands issue. One-quarter of the fossil fuels produced in this country, coal, oil, and gas, comes from our public lands, including National Forests and National Wildlife Refuges. Yet scientists tell us that we need to lock down two-thirds or more of the remaining fossil fuels; to burn them would destroy our future. The best place to start that lock-down process is on our public lands and the way to do that is to end all future federal leasing of public lands fossil fuels to the coal, oil, and gas industries, both onshore and offshore. It is our carbon and we need to keep it in the ground. That would represent real leadership and is just what we need right now.

Tim Ream is WildEarth Guardians Climate and Energy Campaign Director.                  Follow him @ourcarbon.

Decorative Coal Landscaping? Anyone?

Coal is mined for one reason:  to be burned.

It’s not used for decorative landscaping.  It’s not used for building material.  It’s certainly not used for jewelry.  Whether it’s for power (the primary use) or industrial purposes (steel, cement, etc.), the bottomline is, coal is mined to be burned.

So it was curious, if not utterly bizarre, to see the U.S. Interior Department’s latest response to concerns over the environmental impacts of authorizing more coal mining in northwestern Colorado.  That response?

“Combustion of the coal is too speculative.”

Too speculative.  In other words, according to the Interior Department, even though coal is mined for one reason and one reason alone–to be burned–it is too speculative to conclude that more coal mining will lead to more coal burning.

This has to be the most purposefully incompetent, willfully ignorant, and deliberately reckless responses to public concerns over coal burning.

And sadly, it gets worse.

The decision at issue is a new coal lease for Peabody Energy’s new Sage Creek coal mine in northwestern Colorado.  As I’ve blogged about before, Sage Creek is intended to fuel Xcel Energy’s nearby Hayden power plant.  Peabody is gunning for a federal coal lease to lock in the mine as a long-term source of coal for Hayden and potentially even for export to Europe.

Last fall, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the Interior Department agency charged with managing federal coal, proposed to auction off a new coal lease for Peabody to complete its Sage Creek mine.  Before doing so though, the agency had to analyze the environmental impacts of the new coal lease and solicit public input.

WildEarth Guardians responded.  And, of course, we called on the Bureau to address the fact that the coal from the Sage Creek mine would not only be burned in the nearby Hayden power plant, but fuel more coal-fired power plants in the U.S. and possibly abroad, leading more greenhouse gases and other harmful air pollution.

It goes without saying that more coal leasing means more coal mining, which of course means coal burning.  So, it also goes without saying that the Bureau of Land Management has a duty to address these impacts and perhaps temper its decision to better protect our health and the environment.

At least, that’s what we thought.

Because when the Bureau finally responded to our comments, it wasn’t a thoughtful analysis of environmental impacts or a meaningful effort to, perhaps, minimize the global warming impacts of its coal leasing decision.  No, it was this:

“Combustion of the coal is too speculative.”

Read for yourself on page 63 of their Environmental Assessment (or see the bottom of page 25).

The disconnection from reality is stunning.  Even Peabody has said coal from Sage Creek is intended to be a long-term fuel source for the Hayden coal-fired power plant, and has invested millions to make it happen and is locking in contracts as I write.

We know the U.S. Interior Department refuses to admit that its coal leasing and mining decisions have any greenhouse gas implications, but this latest claim–that combustion of Sage Creek coal is speculative–takes the cake.

This isn’t just an agency that’s avoiding responsibility, it’s an agency that’s demented.

Because if coal from the Sage Creek mine in Colorado isn’t burned, perhaps the Interior Department thinks it’s going to be used for decorative landscaping.  Or maybe building material.  Or maybe jewelry.

We can only hope.

In the meantime, that’s f-ing crazy.
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Coal mining…for decorative landscaping?

ClimateWest Podcast: Reaching out from the Rhetoric

Listen to the first ClimateWest podcast by WildEarth Guardians Climate and Energy Program Director, Jeremy Nichols.  Click below:

It’s unfortunate.  Apparently an anti-environmental front group called the Western Colorado Jobs Alliance, which apparently was founded by Jon Anderson, an attorney at Holland and Hart in Denver, is running ads like the one below in western Colorado newspapers:

I don’t even know where to begin with this ad, except to say, really?  Making money by closing off forests?

The reality, though, is that this front group’s ad campaign isn’t about stoking robust discussion about facts or reality, it’s about scaring people with made up stories.  These ones are borderline comedy and could almost be mistaken as an Onion article.  Despite the outlandishness, they have prompted some calls.

But what’s really heartening about all this is that WildEarth Guardians has received more positive feedback from folks in western Colorado in response to these ads.  It seems like every time one of these ads runs, we get more positive e-mails and phone calls from folks telling us to keep it up.  We’ve even gotten a few new members out of this.  Take this little bit of encouragement I recently received from someone in Delta County:

I thought I’d send a message as well-KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK! I don’t think for a minute that you are costing anyone any jobs, but you are obviously causing some wingnut discomfort, so in my book you must be doing something right.

But while you just have to shake your head at how low some attorneys can get, I say why not take advantage of the opportunity to reach out to folks.  Like the guy who called me today (the nice one).

Look, I’m not on a mission to convince everyone that I’m somehow right.  I’d just like to at least take the opportunity to try to convince some folks that I’m someone who cares about things just like they do.  We may disagree on the best way to protect our clean air, water, wildlife, or even disagree about our energy future, but can’t we at least put rhetoric aside for a minute and actually talk about how to solve problems?   The way I see it, at least we could have enough respect for each other as human beings that we could actually have a reasonable discussion.

We’ll see how things shake out.

In the meantime, this latest ad has to be one of the most confusing given that the timber industry in Colorado just got a massive break.  Several companies were recently allowed to simply walk away from unprofitable timber contracts with the Forest Service.  The reason?  The Forest Service wants to make it easier for them to log in Colorado.

Of course, this raises all sorts of questions–like is it smart to throw so much taxpayer money away for the timber industry, or will letting logging companies out of their contracts actually do anything to boost their bottomline, or will logging even have an impact on the beetle infestation in Colorado?  But these are questions for another blog altogether.

Suffice to say, I don’t think “radical environmentalists” are much of a problem for the timber industry or Colorado’s forests.