Commentary

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.

Report Cover

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.

WildEarthGuardians_Coal

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