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Interior Department: Carbon Costs “Misleading”

In July, the Obama Administration was called out over its utter hypocrisy in curtailing carbon pollution in the U.S.

On the one hand, the Administration says that delaying carbon clean up will cost us billions.  On the other, the U.S. Department of Interior, head by Secretary Sally Jewell, is selling millions of tons of coal in the American West and not only refusing to account for carbon costs, but defending their decisions in spite of the climate impacts.

Thankfully, we’re making some progress in reining in the Department’s unwillingness to share in the responsibility to combat climate change.

Just yesterday, a federal judge overturned a coal leasing decision in Colorado over the agency’s failure to assess the social cost of carbon emissions associated with the leasing.  The order comes on the heels of a June ruling where the court held Interior illegally refused to use the “social cost of carbon” protocol, an interagency method of assessing the cost of carbon emissions, when analyzing the environmental and economic impacts of leasing more coal.  The judge was especially perturbed that the agency touted the supposed economic benefits of more mining while completely downplaying (actually, outright denying) the climate costs, which the court noted could be as high as $1 billion (as the court observed, “in effect the agency prepared half of a cost-benefit analysis”).

Cognitive dissonance doesn’t even begin to explain the disconnect here.  What the Interior Department is doing is completely (and literally) undermining our efforts to combat climate change.  Even as President Obama empowers the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reduce greenhouse gases, Sally Jewell’s coal decisions are unleashing massive amounts of carbon.

Either President Obama isn’t really serious about curtailing carbon or the Department of Interior is completely out of line.  It doesn’t take a genius to know where the problem lies.

The federal coal leasing program has been called the “elephant in the room” that, unbelievably, has yet to be noticed.  Yet all indications are that Interior is well aware that coal leasing is detrimental to our climate.  What’s worse, everything indicates that they are deliberately turning their backs on the issue, going so far as to continue denying carbon costs.

Case in point, on August 15, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management approved 15.75 million tons of new coal mining in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming.  Coal is mined for one reason, to be burned, and when burned, this coal stands to unleash 26 million metric tons of carbon pollution (in case there’s any question about the significance of this amount, it equals the annual carbon emissions of 5.4 million cars according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s handy carbon calculator).

So what did the agency have to say about the cost of these carbon emissions?  Complete denial.

In fact, in response to concerns over carbon costs, Interior not only argued that the social cost of carbon protocol is inappropriate for assessing the impacts of coal leasing (an assertion rejected by the federal court in Colorado), but argued that such an analysis would be “unbalanced” and “misleading” (see their decision at bottom of page 2 to page 3).

It gets worse.  For instance, while the Department argued that they are not required to do a cost-benefit analysis, and therefore not obligated to assess carbon costs, they actually did prepare a cost-benefit analysis that again, only touted the purported economic benefits of mining.  In the underlying Environmental Impact Statement for the lease, they estimated hundreds of millions increased revenue and dozens of new jobs (see Environmental Impact Statement at p. 3-160).  In other words, they put together the same “half of a cost benefit analysis” overturned by the federal court in Colorado.

Adding absurdity to the mix, they assert that the social cost of carbon impacts would be “negligible” when compared to the costs of carbon from coal nationwide or globally.  Of course, no actual analysis was completed to support this “negligible” claim and, not surprisingly, they didn’t take such a big picture view when assessing the supposed benefits of more coal mining (after all, using Interior’s logic, wouldn’t the addition of dozens of jobs be “negligible” when compared to all the jobs provided by other industries nationwide or globally?).

To underscore the absurdity, assuming the 26 million metric tons of carbon is produced in 2015, this would lead to costs as low as $260 million and as high as $2.8 billion (for 2015, estimated carbon costs range from $11 per metric ton to $109, depending on the discount rate).  Put another way, Interior is actually claiming that a cost of $2.8 billion is negligible.

Topping it all off, the agency continued to stand by its claim that, “The tools necessary to quantify climatic impacts from projects such as a lease modification are presently unavailable” (see Environmental Assessment at p. 27).  Yet the federal court in Colorado affirmed that there is a tool, the social cost of carbon protocol (see ruling at p. 17).

Why would Interior argue such deceit?  It’s unclear, but the only reason for the agency to describe a social cost of carbon analysis as “unbalanced” and “misleading” is because it would show that the cost of leasing coal isn’t worth it.

Ultimately, the Department of Interior is either one of America’s most dangerous climate deniers or the they’re truly of the mind that they must lease coal at any cost.  Either way, it’s clear that the agency has no intention of stepping up to address the carbon impacts of coal leasing.

To put it bluntly, the U.S. Interior Department isn’t ignoring the elephant in the room, they’re simply trying to hide it.

We’re making progress in cutting carbon, but so long as Sally Jewell and the Department of Interior keep flouting our nation’s commitment to safeguarding the climate, it’s clear we can never fully succeed.

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Saving our climate is as easy as keeping carbon underground, something the U.S. Interior Department has yet to embrace.

UPDATE:  On October 6, 2014, WildEarth Guardians filed its statement of reasons challenging the Interior Department’s latest coal leasing plans in the Powder River Basin.  Among other things, the appeal challenges Interior’s completely arbitrary and unsupported assertion that disclosing carbon costs would be misleading.  The statement of reasons calls on the Interior Board of Land Appeals to overturn the decision and compel a rational and accurate analysis of climate impacts.

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