Why Keep our Coal in the Ground?

We know that 40% of our nation’s coal comes from publicly owned deposits primarily in the Rocky Mountain West and that when burned, this coal produces more than 11% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Now, we have a series of interactive maps showing exactly what this all means, why it matters for the climate, and why the Obama Administration needs to step up and do something about it.

With the help of our friends at Conservation Geography, WildEarth Guardians put together the story of our publicly owned coal, its climate impacts, and why we need to start keeping it in the ground.

Check out the maps here, or click the picture below.

For web mapping-2

This is the first time that this much data around the federal coal program has been compiled, mapped, and explained. And it was quite the endeavor.

These maps highlight the role of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s role in facilitating the mining and burning of our publicly owned coal (i.e., coal that is literally owned by every American, but managed by the Interior Department).  Amazingly, though, the Interior does not have a centralized set of coal data to allow this kind of visualization.

Instead, they have individual coal lease records with general information, including some spatial data, like township/range/section information, and other data points. To make this, we had to transcribe the data, tabulate it, and convert it into a visual format.  Admittedly, it isn’t perfect. The maps show the general locations of federal coal leases, but not the actual shapes of the leases (or the actual lease polygons). Still, these maps provide an eye-opening illustration of where the leases are located and also highlight attributes that the Interior Department doesn’t even track, like carbon pollution and climate costs. Check it out!


Click on the map to learn more about the climate impacts of leasing publicly owned coal.

The maps tell the story of our publicly owned coal at a national scale, then at a Rocky Mountain West scale, then hone in on the Powder River Basin of northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana. This region is the largest coal producing region in the nation. Some of the largest coal mines in the world are located here, fueling hundreds of power plants in the U.S. and even overseas.

Check out the maps and find out if a power plant in your backyard is fueled by coal from the Powder River Basin. If it is, it’s safe to say the Interior Department is behind it.

powder river basin

Check out where coal mined in the Powder River Basin goes.

Finally, the maps illustrate where WildEarth Guardians is weighing in to make a difference. Our aim is to protect the climate by keeping our publicly owned coal in the ground. We’re doing this by confronting new coal leasing and mining approvals in federal court and building public and political pressure for reform. Ultimately, our goal is to put an end to the federal coal program.

And we’re winning.

Not only have we had numerous recent court successes, but last week several U.S. Senators introduced a bill that would reform the federal coal program and put it on the path toward keeping it in the ground.

With leading economists endorsing the need for the Obama Administration to consider the climate costs of coal leasing and even the President himself saying that we should keep some fossil fuels in the ground to protect the climate, the momentum is building.

It’s time to acknowledge our climate realities and for the Obama Administration to come clean with the American public. It’s time to come up with a plan to protect our climate and keep our coal in the ground for good.


It’s time to keep our coal in the ground.


Senators Put the “Act” in “Keep It in the Ground”


Regular readers of this blog know from my very first post in August 2014, WildEarth Guardians has been trying to jumpstart a keep it in the ground movement to end the federal leasing of all fossil fuels.

When Guardians marched in the giant New York City People’s Climate March in September 2014, we called for kicking coal mining and oil and natural gas drilling companies off our public lands. We seemed to be alone among the half-million in trying to steer the climate movement toward a call to end federal fossil fuel leasing.20140921_103508

What a difference a little over a year makes! At this point, the idea has clearly caught on, with so many groups and individuals now involved and working hard. A major milestone was achieved with a September 2015 White House press conference, presenting a letter to President Obama, signed by over 400 groups and leaders, calling for an end to all federal leasing on public lands and waters. And just this week, we marked the beginning of a series of protests to challenge federal coal, oil, and gas lease sales wherever they happen throughout the West (check out this local TV clip and pictures from the most recent rally to keep our oil and gas in the ground in Cheyenne, Wyoming!).

21415832186_f54a30f5b9_kThat’s not the end of it. The day after the first of those protests, seven Senators—including Oregon Senator, Jeff Merkley, and Presidential Candidate, Bernie Sanders—announced they were co-sponsoring the “Keep It in the Ground Act,” which would end all new federal leasing of coal, oil and gas on our public lands and waters! By Friday morning, in announcing the denial of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, even President Obama said,“We’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky.”

It’s been an amazing couple of months, and what a week. But really, it all makes perfect sense.

With about 25% of all U.S. emissions coming from burning fossil fuels from the public’s lands and waters, and with huge reserves of coal, oil, and gas that can never be safely burned, we have to keep this stuff in the ground where it can’t destroy our climate and our future. Existing leases and fossil fuel reserves in private hands are plenty big enough to get us through a rapid transition to an efficient, clean energy economy. There is just no reason to give away more of the people’s coal, oil, and gas.

Despite all the attention the Keep It in the Ground Act has gotten these last few days, we can’t let ourselves be distracted from the real goal of this campaign. Congress is not going to pass this bill anytime soon. But it doesn’t have to.

The President has all the authority he needs to stop new coal leases, new coal lease expansions, and new coal mine approvals. The President has all the authority he needs to stop new offshore and deepwater oil and gas leasing in the Arctic, the Atlantic, the Pacific, and in the Gulf of Mexico. He has the authority to stop new oil and gas leasing in places like New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon, Colorado’s Pawnee Grasslands, Utah’s Uinta Mountains, and Wyoming’s Red Desert.

Sadly, his Administration is instead considering opening nearly all of those places to more federal leasing. The Interior Department is now taking comment on approvals for 350 million new tons of coal to be mined on our public lands. This month alone Interior is selling 230,000 acres of public lands oil and gas leases, with some selling just this week for as little as $2 per acre. And our precious coastal waters are also still being considered by the Administration for new leases under its outdated “all-of-the-above” energy strategy.

We finally have a President that is paying attention to climate emissions. That’s great. But it is only half the equation. We can’t just focus on the tailpipes and smokestacks. We need a climate-conscious energy policy as well. Anywhere fossil fuels are dug up, they will be burned.

That’s why we have to keep them in the ground. Our federal lands are the perfect place to start. President Obama has 14 months to act. Make sure he hears from you.

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.

climate denial at Interior

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.

Interior Department Killing Climate Progress

The climate hypocrisy of the U.S. Department of the Interior reached new and absolutely bizarre lows this past week.

On Monday, Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior Department, helped unveil the largest solar farm on our public lands, commending the project for taking “action on climate change” and helping “move our nation toward a renewable energy future.”

The plaudits were well founded.  After all, an estimated 300,000 tons of carbon stand to be displaced annually by the 550 megawatt solar farm, not an insignificant amount.

Two days later, however, Sally Jewell completely obliterated this climate progress.

In an oil and gas lease sale in Colorado, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management auctioned off 15,424 acres of public lands for drilling and fracking in the Little Snake Field Office in northwest Colorado.

Touted as an economic success, what the Bureau of Land Management failed to acknowledge is that development of these leases would fuel an increase in carbon dioxide (i.e., CO2) emissions to more than 800,000 tons annually just in the Little Snake Field Office.  The chart below, taken from the agency’s own environmental analysis, plainly shows the projected increase.

CO2 increase in Little Snake Field Office

Air emission increases projected in the Bureau of Land Management’s Little Snake Field Office of western Colorado (taken from p. 23 of the agency’s analysis).

That’s not the worst of it.  The chart above also shows that methane emissions (i.e., CH4) from oil and gas development would increase to 19,247 tons annually.  Given that methane is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide, that amounts to more than 1.6 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

When everything is said and done, we’re looking at a decision by the Interior Department that will increase carbon emissions by more than 2 million tons annually.

carbon differences

The net carbon increase is actually 2,184,229 tons annually.  No climate benefits will be remotely reaped by the Interior Department’s solar project. 

And as if this wasn’t bad enough, this increase doesn’t even take into account the carbon emissions that will result from the burning of the produced oil and gas.  All told, we’re taking about a major carbon setback.

So much for the benefits of solar, so much for climate progress at the Interior Department, and so much for moving our nation toward renewable energy.

Oh, and as for the claimed economic success of the Bureau of Land Management’s oil and gas lease sale?  Taking into account the value of carbon, which could be as high as $220 per ton, we’re looking upwards of $480 million in costs.  That’s a far cry from the $319,113 in revenue reported by the agency.

The worst of it is, more oil and gas leasing and even more carbon pollution is on the horizon.

Just this past week, the Bureau of Land Management announced plans to lease 35,000 more acres of public lands in Colorado, including 25,000 acres of the Pawnee National Grassland.  And next week, the agency intends to auction off 12,000 acres of public lands for fracking in southern Utah.

The climate hypocrisy of the Interior Department seemingly knows no bounds.  For our nation and our future, hopefully this will change and change soon.  We can’t save the climate by selling more oil and gas.


Public lands oil and gas development approved by the Department of the Interior is destroying climate progress.

Take a Fracking Tour in the Rockies!

Check out our new interactive photo tour map of fracking in the Rocky Mountain West!

Click on the image below and see firsthand what fracking is looking like on the ground, what’s it’s doing to the iconic American West, and what’s at stake if we can’t overcome this onslaught from the oil and gas industry.  If you really want to dive in, download the .kml file, open it up in Google Earth, and explore away (and by the way, for the more GIS minded, Google Earth Pro–which comes with way more data handling capabilities–is now free).

The vast majority of oil and gas development occurring in the Rocky Mountain West is happening on public lands.  Although our public lands are an immense national treasure, they are sadly being industrialized.  Worse, this development is fueling unprecedented releases of greenhouse gases, including from methane leaks.  WildEarth Guardians is working to keep our public lands frack-free in order to safeguard the climate and protect our future.

This is a work in progress, we’ll keep posting photos as we get ’em and refining the map as we go.  In the meantime, enjoy!

fracking tour map