When President Obama and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced a suspension of pending federal coal leases and a top-to-bottom review of the long broken coal program, we cheered.
Digging past the headline, here are important implications about what this proposal means for the climate, the economy, and our future that are worth cheering about.
1- Serious climate progress: The coal lease suspension stops the zombie-like inertia of a federal coal leasing program that is a major source of our country’s climate pollution. That inertia simply can’t continue if we are serious about climate. Just this week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA announced that 2015 was the hottest year on record. With rising temperatures, extreme weather, and human displacement, we know that not all populations will be harmed by climate change in the same way. The elderly, children, communities of color, and low income populations will be disproportionately harmed by the impacts of climate change, underscoring and even greater responsibility our decision-makers have to act on climate out of justice.
America needs to lead. A study published in Nature in 2015 concluded that the U.S. needs to keep 92 percent of its coal reserves in the ground as part of an overall slashing of fossil fuel use if we are going to avoid dangerous climate disruption.
Following the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, a historic climate agreement with China, and the Paris climate accord — this coal lease suspension shows that the Obama administration is committed to continuing its climate leadership.
2. Serious climate and financial scale: The federal coal leasing program is massive and costs far more than any benefits it might produce. Plus, the program, as it has been managed for decades, no longer serves the national interest: federal taxpayers lost out on an estimated $28.9 billion in revenues over the 30 years since the federal government last overhauled its coal leasing program.
And look at its massive scale when it comes to climate disruption: Forty percent of the coal burned in U.S. power plants is mined from federal public lands, and ninety percent of that is from the Powder River Basin in northeastern Wyoming. That’s 400 million tons of coal every year! From methane released by coal mines, to the pollution from moving the coal, to the carbon dioxide and toxins from burning the coal, the coal mined out of our public lands is making people sick and heating up the planet. A study by Center for American Progress and the Wilderness Society found that federally leased coal in Montana and Wyoming drives at least ten percent of all U.S. climate pollution. As part of this new review, the federal government will finally develop a publicly available database of the carbon emitted from fossil fuels taken from public lands and account for the costs that carbon pollution imposes on people.
Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman professor of economics at the University of Chicago, has written that “The climate damages from coal mined from this region [Powder River Basin] are five to six times greater than its market value ($0.66 at market value versus $3.89 of climate damages).”
3. The sky isn’t falling (but it is heating up): The administration is suspending leases that have not received final approval and won’t be approving any new ones the industry may propose. There’s still 20 years of coal production with existing approved leases. That doesn’t mean we should burn it all, but it does mean that this announcement leaves time for finally reforming a program that is endangering our future and polluting communities. We are already hearing manufactured panic about the announcement, ignoring that we’ve been here before.Presidents Nixon and Reagan oversaw pauses to study the program. We aren’t breaking new ground here–unlike coal mines that rip up our public lands. The government will continue to press ahead with some harmful lease expansions, including one that is the single biggest in the program’s history and another that will ruin parts of a National Forest roadless area in Colorado. We still have work to do.
4. The coal market is in a permanent decline–it’s time to start planning for the future, and invest in community transition: Just this week the Billings Gazette editorialized that Montana can’t stake its future on coal. At a time when clean energy continues to expand exponentially every year, this suspension and review offers an opportunity to rethink a 30-year-old-program while starting to invest in communities that need help transitioning away from coal.
The future of coal is bleak. It’s a dirty, expensive, and outdated energy source. As coal loses space in the U.S. and coal companies try to push it overseas, communities spanning the coalfields, rail cities, and port towns, are standing up to stop coal export facilities. Communities around the world are also resisting the development of new coal in favor of clean energy access. The coal industry’s business model is collapsing, not unlike the shifts seen in other parts of our economy where rapid change has swamped incumbent players who can’t compete. This is an opportunity to start planning for the end of mining coal on our public lands and to ensure that any coal that remains to be mined will financially contribute to the transition of affected communities.
5. Coal leasing program reform means more clean energy: Underpriced federal coal prolongs the life of coal plants and crowds out clean energy. That means fewer clean energy economic opportunities in communities and more illnesses. President Obama has called for accelerating clean energy and this program has run directly counter to that goal.
Plus – clean energy is growing by leaps and bounds. Solar jobs grew 123 percent in the past six years. Wind power continues to break records! Instead of mining and drilling our federal public lands for dirty fuels that put us and future generations at risk, we should focus on moving faster and farther on clean energy that won’t harm our air, water, and climate but that will create jobs and boost the economy.
For now, join tens of thousands of other Americans and send President Obama and Secretary Jewell a ‘thank you’ for this decision. And then, let’s talk clean energy. We’re #ReadyFor100 percent clean energy – are you?
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