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Obama keeps thousands of acres of public land open to coal mining

Look at all this coal you're about to give away.
Look at all this coal you're about to give away.
(Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

Correction: This story (along with its original headline) misstated the effect of BLM's decision. The regional management plan (RMP) for the Buffalo field office does not set aside new public land for coal leasing. The land in question was already open to coal leasing; the new RMP keeps it open, i.e., reaffirms prior BLM designations.

Regarding this quote from the plan — that BLM "has estimated that it would issue 28 coal leases encompassing 106,400 acres with approximately 10.2 billion tons of coal" — it is not a plan or a prediction, but an outer-bound estimate of how many leases would be issued if the historic pace of leasing continued. There are reasons to think the pace could change, since  a) the pace has declined in previous years as coal takes a beating in the market, and b) there are ongoing discussions within the administration about leasing reform.

So the talk of "dashed hopes" below is a bit hyperbolic, and certainly premature.

That said, the decision is a disappointment to environmentalists, who hoped that BLM would set some of the land aside, out of reach of a leasing program that everyone agrees is, in its current state, dysfunctional.

Environmentalists have long objected to the US government leasing large swaths of public land to coal companies so they can mine it — often offering those leases for a fraction of fair market value. It amounts, they say, to American taxpayers subsidizing the US coal industry and accelerating climate change. Brad Plumer wrote an excellent explainer on it last year.

Earlier this year, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell acknowledged these concerns in a speech before the Center for Strategic and International Studies, saying:

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.

This raised a lot of hopes in the green community.

And then yesterday, those hopes were more or less dashed. [See correction above.]

Lots more coal leasing on the way

Yesterday, the US Bureau of Land Management released its regional management plan for the Buffalo Field Office in Wyoming, which oversees most of the Powder River Basin, where the bulk of Western coal is located.

Long story short: the government is going to lease lots more coal. Specifically, BLM "has estimated that it would issue 28 coal leases encompassing 106,400 acres with approximately 10.2 billion tons of coal." [Again, see correction above.]

According to a Greenpeace report, burning those 10.2 billion tons of coal would produce 16.9 billion metric tons of CO2. Here's a graphic from that report, comparing the emissions represented by coal leases to the emissions reduced by Obama's Clean Power Plan:


This comparison is not entirely fair — Obama has passed other emission-reducing measures, and it's unlikely every single ton of coal available for lease will get mined and burned — but the larger point is valid: the emissions represented by the coal US taxpayers have leased to coal companies for cheap under Obama absolutely swamps the amount of emissions reduced by his other policies.

Bonus: yesterday BLM also issued an RMP for its Miles City Office, which oversees the portions of the Powder River Basin in Montana. That one opens up about 1.5 million acres containing 71.18 billion tons of coal, though it doesn't specify how many leases it intends to offer. In reality, that coal is less likely to get burned, at least anytime soon. The big, established mines are in Wyoming, and it's cheaper to expand them than to build new mines (and rail to transport coal) in Montana. But still. It's available now.

Incidentally, both RMPs also open lots of new land to oil and gas development. And there's a plan to save the sage grouse. Lots going on at BLM.

Supply vs. demand in climate policy

This is just the latest chapter in an ongoing conflict between Obama and environmentalists — a conflict that goes all the way back to 2008. Arguments over Obama's environmental and climate legacy always come down to this: he's willing to support policies that reduce demand for fossil fuel energy; he's willing to support policies that boost supply of clean energy; but he is not willing to constrict the supply of fossil fuel energy.

In fact, fossil fuel supply has risen every year under Obama, who has presided over a fracking boom, opened up new offshore oil drilling off the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico, increased the number and speed of oil and gas permits on public lands, and, as yesterday's RMPs show, given coal companies cheap access to millions of tons of the public's coal. Merely trying to stop the Keystone pipeline — one small piece of fossil fuel supply infrastructure, and not even a hugely consequential one — has taken a titanic effort on the part of environmental activists. (And it's still not decided.)

(Price of Oil)

This is true, incidentally, of most leaders of industrialized nations. It's difficult to find an example of a government putting domestic fossil fuel deposits off-limits on the basis of climate concern.

On this issue, Obama has sided with the wonks against activists. Most climate wonks are convinced that the only way to transition from fossil fuels to clean energy is through demand — to make it so we don't need them. The logic is simple: the amount of proven global fossil fuel reserves so wildly exceeds what would be necessary to fry the planet that there's simply no prospect of restricting supply enough, in enough places, to make a difference to the climate. It will just be an endless game of whack-a-mole; for each supply project shut down, the value of the remaining deposits will rise and new supply projects will come online.

And if no one country can restrict supply enough to make a difference, each country might as well reap the domestic benefits of boosting supply while working to reduce its own demand. A ton of American coal that stays in the ground won't prevent a ton from being burned; it will merely let someone else profit from it.

That, anyway, seems to be Obama's logic.

But activists, emboldened by the Keystone fight, are increasingly taking a hard-line "leave it in the ground" stance. (Activist KC Golden calls it the Keystone Principle.) When Obama authorized new drilling in the Arctic, Bill McKibben wrote a scathing op-ed in the New York Times, saying:

[Y]ou can’t deal with climate on the demand side alone. If we keep digging up more coal, gas and oil, it will get burned, if not here, then somewhere else. ...


This is not climate denial of the Republican sort, where people simply pretend the science isn’t real. This is climate denial of the status quo sort, where people accept the science, and indeed make long speeches about the immorality of passing on a ruined world to our children. They just deny the meaning of the science, which is that we must keep carbon in the ground.

BLM's announcement shows that this stance has not yet made an impression on the administration. The Obama years will begin and end with rising fossil fuel supply.

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