Held in Trust: Decisions We Make Now About our Federal Fossil Fuels Shape Today and Tomorrow

700 million acres. This is the amount of land that holds federal minerals that belong to us all. What we do with them will shape both the present and the future.
Black Thunder Coal Mine North in Wyoming's Powder River Basin
Credit: Photo: Doc Searls/Flickr

700 million acres. This is the amount of land that holds federal minerals that belong to us all. What we do with them will shape both the present and the future.

Over 80 billion tons of coal are at stake in the Powder River Basin stretching across Wyoming and Montana. That's enough coal to keep America's current power plants going for over 100 years. Mining and burning this coal spells disaster for our climate, our water and our health.

Last September, the Obama Administration made available all this coal to leasing. The decision also made available over 8 million acres for oil and gas drilling. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) estimates that over 20,000 new wells will be drilled. This would more than double the number of existing wells.

In response, NRDC and allies in the region filed a lawsuit today challenging these plans. Federal law requires the federal government to manage the public lands in the public interest. What this means today is very different than what it meant 150 years ago when settlers in the West were sparse. While we encouraged extraction in the past, today we cannot afford to.

In rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline, President Obama said "we need to keep some fossil fuel in the ground" if we want to keep this planet from becoming not only "inhospitable but uninhabitable." Interior Secretary Jewell recognized this today when she excluded the Atlantic from the Department's proposed offshore leasing plan. What we decide now about new places to drill for oil and gas offshore determines how much pollution we lock in for our children.

Coal is another critical piece of the puzzle. Interior Secretary Jewell acknowledged the need to rethink coal mining on public lands when she ordered a comprehensive review of the program in January. In reviewing the program, Jewell should reexamine the decision to make those 80 billion tons of coal available for leasing. It is an obvious place to start, as it is one of our nation's most prolific energy producing regions, accounting for over 40 percent of all domestic coal production.

In her January action, Secretary Jewell took a critical step by pausing leasing until the program's review is complete. The pause, however, includes some exceptions — some of which apply in the Powder River Basin. Moreover, the pause does not apply to oil and gas leasing. Finally, a new Secretary could eliminate the pause next year. For these reasons, NRDC filed suit today.

In deciding to make 80 billion tons of Powder River Basin coal available for leasing, the Bureau of Land Management failed to consider any other options. The agency failed to take a hard look at the climate consequences of its actions. It also failed to take a hard look at options for mitigating methane released from both coal mining and oil and gas drilling. The public lands at stake are held in trust for all of us. Exercising this trust requires protecting our lands and our climate for our children to enjoy. BLM's decision fails to deliver.

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