Interior Department: Tens of Billions of Tons of Coal Now Available for Lease in West

(Note: June 5--I should have made clear in the original post that the Interior Department is continuing to make this coal available for lease. That is what their decision does. Companies can apply to lease this coal. It is not "new" coal and it will not automatically be put up for sale. My apologies.)


Yesterday Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced plans to make tens of billions of tons of coal available for lease on federal land in Montana and Wyoming.

To be precise, 81.3 billion tons of coal.

To put that in perspective, the US burns about 900 million tons of coal a year. So yesterday's announcement amounts to more than 90 times the amount of coal the US consumes annually.

That's a lot of coal, and if burned, a lot more carbon pollution as burning a ton of coal from the region emits a minimum of 1.6 tons of carbon emissions.

The coal sits under Montana and Wyoming's Powder River Basin, the nation's largest coal producing region. Ironically, the coal was made available through a larger plan to protect and preserve the habitat of the greater sage-grouse. The sage grouse is an iconic species of the West that has long been threatened by commercial development and energy projects.

Interior's plans to protect the sage grouse have been in the works for many years, and while not perfect certainly have laudable elements and represent the work of hundreds federal, state and local employees and citizens trying to protect threatened wildlife and beautiful landscape. Many details of the plan remain unresolved, and we'll be working with Interior to strengthen the wildlife and habitat protections. It's a floor, not a ceiling.

You can find a statement on the sage grouse announcement from our President Rhea Suh here, and a blog by my colleague Amanda Jahshan in Montana, here.

The vehicle for the sage grouse protections was a suite of Resource Management Plans, or RMP's, produced by Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Many of these plans were 30 years old and badly in need of update.

Advocates had long asked Secretary Jewell and Interior/BLM officials to pull the coal sections out of the Resource Management Plans for further review. Obviously that didn't happen.

Most of our focus has been on the "Buffalo" area RMP as it represents the heart of the nation's largest coal producing region--the Powder River Basin. The draft Buffalo RMP released in 2013 called for leasing essentially all of the remaining economically recoverable coal in the Wyoming portion of the Powder River Basin.

And that's what we got:

The BLM has estimated that it would issue 28 coal leases encompassing 106,400 acres with approximately 10.2 billion tons of coal and encompassing 106,400 acres in the two high-potential areas over the next 20 years. The majority, if not all, of these leases would be to provide reserves so that the already operating mines can continue to operate. This is the ongoing production maintenance leasing program currently in effect for the PRB Coal Production Region. FEIS (p. 823)

Which is hard to reconcile with President Obama's Clean Power Plan. The CPP would reduce carbon pollution by approximately 5.3 billion tons between 2020 and 2030. Burning 10.2 tons of PRB coal would release nearly 17 billion tons of carbon pollution.

And that's the coal most likely to be burned as it's close to or adjacent to existing mines. The much bigger reserves in Montana announced yesterday are less likely to be mined and burned as there is nowhere near as much mining activity in the region as there is down south in Wyoming.

Still the numbers are staggering:

Under this plan, leasing decisions would be carried forward from the Powder River and Big Dry RMPs and approximately 1.0 million acres (containing 65.63 billion tons of coal) identified in the Powder River RMP and 580,547 acres (containing 6.18 billion tons of coal), identified in the Big Dry RMP would be available for further consideration for leasing. (FEIS 4-254)

What's more, the plan announced by Secretary Jewell yesterday includes the potential for thousands of new oil and gas leases.

To be fair, it's highly unlikely that the majority of coal discussed above will ever get burned. One good reason for that is the Obama Administration's efforts to cut down on carbon pollution and to ramp up energy efficiency and renewables. This Administration has in fact done more to cut carbon pollution than any other, and has forced major emitters like China and India to the table with its plans to curb pollution from existing power plants.

But that's precisely what makes yesterday's announcement so maddening. It's contradictory, counter-productive and seemingly unnecessary. The handful of coal companies operating in the Powder River Basin already have many years-worth of coal reserves that they've gotten at taxpayer's expense for bargain-basement prices (you can find more on that scandal here).

As Secretary Jewell noted now somewhat infamously in a speech this March:

I think most Americans would be surprised to know that coal companies can make a winning bid for about a dollar a ton to mine taxpayer-owned coal.

Coal is going to continue to be an important part of our nation's energy mix in the future. But the Government Accountability Office, our Inspector General, and Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle agree that the federal coal program needs reform.

We need to ask ourselves: Are taxpayers and local communities getting a fair return from these resources? How can we make the program more transparent and more competitive? How do we manage the program in a way that is consistent with our climate change objectives? These are hard questions. But it's time for an honest and open conversation about modernizing the federal coal program.

It's hard to read that now with a straight face. But as Dave Roberts noted in a blog on yesterday's announcement, this kind of Jekyll and Hyde fossil fuel behavior has been a maddening hallmark of the Obama Administration. They're essentially saying; 'We're gonna cut way down on the smoke, but stock up on the wood.'

That's not quite so bad if you're in charge of the woodshed. But who's to say who will be in a few years time?