A Big Day for the Public, Public Lands and Climate

Today is an historic day. The Obama administration announced that it will stop new coal leases on public land until it can conduct a comprehensive review of the flawed Interior Department program that sells this taxpayer-owned resource. While focused on coal, the review will also include an accounting of the carbon emissions of all fossil fuel production on federal lands.

As our President Rhea Suh noted:

The president is right to stop this handout to big coal companies, which has cost American taxpayers more than $30 billion over the past three decades. Aligning the use of America's public lands with our obligation to protect future generations from the dangers of climate change--that's what leadership is all about, at home and abroad, as we transition away from dirty fossil fuels of the past to a clean energy 21st century.

Today's announcement affects the Department of Interior's coal leasing program, largely administered by the Bureau of Land Management. Over 40 percent of America's coal comes from public lands, mainly in the Interior West. The Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana is the nation's largest coal producing region. Last year America produced 900 million tons of coal. Federally owned coal sales and associated fees garner approximately $1 billion in revenue to the Treasury. Sally Jewell's Secretarial Order can be found here.

This is the right thing to do. There hasn't been a pause in leasing and thorough review of the way taxpayer-owned coal is sold since the Reagan Administration. Public lands are a public trust set aside for the public interest. As the President said in his state of the Union Address," Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future."

And this is a broken program. We know. NRDC commissioned the first audit of the federal coal leasing program in more than three decades. The subsequent report by Tom Sanzillo, The Great Giveaway, showed that taxpayers had been shortchanged nearly $30 billion over three decades. In the lead up to the report's release, Tom worked with the Washington Post on an exclusive. The Post's reporting led the Interior Department's Inspector General (IG) to launch an investigation into the coal leasing program. The IG's office issued a report that identified myriad flaws in the program.

The IG's report helped lead a longtime champ of coal program reform, then Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, to get the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to do a comprehensive investigation of the coal leasing program. And thanks to the dogged determination of Congressional watchdogs like Senators Markey, Maria Cantwell, Tom Udall, and Ron Wyden, the GAO was able to confirm NRDC's prior research that the coal program was costing the taxpayers billions.

The IG and GAO reports remain the two single largest assessments of the program and its flaws to date. They were both cited repeatedly by Secretary Jewell and the Office of Management and Budget as primary drivers for a pause and review on a call today detailing the announcement.

Some details of today's announcement:

  • Interior will conduct a comprehensive review of the federal coal leasing program through a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) consistent with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The PEIS will identify and evaluate potential reforms to the program. Scoping will begin immediately with an interim report to be published at the end of the year. It's expected to take three years.
  • A "Pause," effective immediately. No new large leases will be sold until the PEIS is done, but there are exceptions for leases already approved by Interior, for 'emergencies,' and for Indian lands. Metallurgical coal used for making steel is exempt.
  • The Pause will not impact approximately 18 pending leases that have already been approved. Secretary Jewell said at today's presser that companies already have enough coal leased to keep us and them going for 20 years.
  • The Programmatic Review will look at the best ways to determine how, when and where to lease; how to account for the environmental and public health impacts of the coal program; and how to ensure taxpayers get a fair return. fair return to the American; taxpayers,
  • The review will also consider raising royalty rates; explore whether U.S. coal exports should factor into leasing decisions; how the management, availability and pricing of federal coal impacts domestic and foreign markets and energy portfolios; and the role of federal coal in fulfilling the energy needs of the United States.
  • To help make what is now a Black Box program transparent, BLM will require State and field offices to post online in an easily accessible format notice of each pending request to lease coal or to reduce royalties;
  • The U.S. Geological Survey will establish a database to account for the annual carbon emission from fossil fuels developed on public lands. No such thing exists. An independent analysis says those emissions could be 28 percent of the US total.

About the Authors

Theo Spencer

Senior Advocate, Dirty Energy, Lands Division, Nature Program

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