Interior Dept. halts new coal leases

The Wisconsin Gazette

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced on Jan. 15 that the Interior Department will launch a comprehensive review to identify and evaluate potential reforms to the federal coal program to ensure it provides a :fair return to taxpayers and reflect its impacts on the environment, while continuing to help meet our energy needs.”

This means a halt to new coal leases. The Interior Department referred to the halt as a “pause.”

The announcement follows President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, in which he spoke of improving management fossil fuel resources and moving the country toward a clean energy economy.

The review will examine concerns about the federal coal program that have been raised by the Government Accountability Office, the Interior Department’s Inspector General, members of Congress and the public.

The review, according to Jewell, will take a careful look at issues such as how, when, and where to lease; how to account for the environmental and public health impacts of federal coal production; and how to ensure American taxpayers are earning a fair return for the use of their public resources.

“Even as our nation transitions to cleaner energy sources, building on smart policies and progress already underway, we know that coal will continue to be an important domestic energy source in the years ahead,” said Jewell in a news release. “We haven’t undertaken a comprehensive review of the program in more than 30 years, and we have an obligation to current and future generations to ensure the federal coal program delivers a fair return to American taxpayers and takes into account its impacts on climate change.”

Consistent with the practice during two reviews of the federal coal program that occurred during the 1970s and 1980s, the Interior Department will institute a pause on issuing new coal leases while the review is underway.

The pause does not apply to existing coal production activities.

Also, the department said there “will be limited, commonsense exceptions to the pause, including for metallurgical coal (typically used in steel production), small lease modifications and emergency leasing, including where there is a demonstrated safety need or insufficient reserves.”

In addition, pending leases that have already completed an environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act and received a final Record of Decision or Decision Order by a federal agency will be allowed to complete the final procedural steps to secure a lease.

During and after the pause, companies can continue to mine the large amount of coal reserves already under lease, estimated to be enough to sustain current levels of production from federal land for approximately 20 years.

“Given serious concerns raised about the federal coal program, we’re taking the prudent step to hit pause on approving significant new leases so that decisions about those leases can benefit from the recommendations that come out of the review,” said Jewell. “During this time, companies can continue production activities on the large reserves of recoverable coal they have under lease, and we’ll make accommodations in the event of emergency circumstances to ensure this pause will have no material impact on the nation’s ability to meet its power generation needs. We are undertaking this effort with full consideration of the importance of maintaining reliable and affordable energy for American families and businesses, as well other federal programs and policies.”

The action builds on Jewell’s call last March for an open and honest conversation about modernizing the federal coal program.

Also, the secretary on Jan. 15 said the Interior Department will undertake a series of good government reforms to improve transparency and administration of the federal coal program. These reforms include establishing a publicly available database to account for the carbon emitted from fossil fuels developed on public lands, requiring Bureau of Land Management offices to publicly post online pending requests to lease coal or reduce royalties, and facilitating the capture of waste mine methane.

The full review is expected to take approximately three years.

Reaction to the announcement:

“This measure signifies a key step towards sunsetting a practice that has led to immense environmental destruction, human and health impacts, and is one of the greatest sources of carbon emissions worldwide,” says Amanda Starbuck, climate and energy program director at Rainforest Action Network.

Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said, “The Sierra Club applauds President Obama and Secretary Jewell for their leadership in reforming the federal coal leasing program and putting an immediate stop to all new and modified coal leasing. This program is broken, outdated, and does not consider the threat of climate change in our communities, and thanks to the Obama Administration’s leadership, we can proudly say that big coal’s destructive reach over our public lands is coming to an end.”