A coalition of groups today called on President Obama to permanently end the federal coal program, highlighting the fact that ending leasing and mining of public coal in the United States would keep up to 212 billion metric tons of carbon pollution in the ground — the equivalent of taking nearly 50 billion cars off the road and saving society more than $7 trillion in avoided climate damages.
“If we have any chance of avoiding the worst consequences of global warming, we have to move away from fossil fuels,” said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ climate and energy program director. “This shift starts with reining in the mining of our publicly owned coal and helping coal-dependent communities transition to more prosperous and sustainable economies.”
“There is a fundamental disconnect between President Obama’s recognition that we need to take immediate action on climate change and how our public lands are managed for energy production, particularly coal,” said Kyle Tisdel, attorney and climate and energy program director with the Western Environmental Law Center. “If we are to stem the most catastrophic impacts from a warming planet, as well as dramatic impacts to our communities and public health, the transformation must start by reforming the federal coal program.”
The new figures were part of detailed comments submitted today at the close of the public scoping period for the comprehensive review and potential reform of the federal coal-leasing program. In response to mounting controversy, including the climate impacts from burning coal, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell kicked off the reform process in January, announcing a temporary moratorium on new leasing and the initiation of a full environmental review of the federal coal program. While the review is underway, Jewell has ordered a pause in significant new coal-leasing decisions on public lands.
Halting federal coal leasing and mining will have significant benefits to the climate as well as people and the environment. Among the more than $7 trillion in savings from stopping public coal leasing in the United States are savings in terms of human health costs and infrastructure damage caused by climate-driven events.
The groups today, representing local, regional and national environmental and health organizations, also sent a letter to President Obama summarizing the specific requests for reforms in how publicly owned coal is managed, including an end to the federal coal program altogether, which would keep up to 212 billion metric tons of carbon in the ground, according to a recent report by EcoShift, prepared for the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth.
Based on conservative carbon-cost estimates that place the value of a metric ton of carbon dioxide at $37, future coal leasing and mining threaten to saddle society with more than $7 trillion in damages and health-related costs.
“The science is clear that there’s no reasonable path to avoiding the worst effects of climate change without the phase-out of coal mining and combustion,” said Michael Saul, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “We can’t do that while simultaneously committing to massive new coal mining into the 2040s and beyond. It’s time for the Department of the Interior to start being honest with itself and American communities and shift policies now for a clean and sustainable future.”
Currently more than 40 percent of all coal produced in the United States comes from publicly owned reserves that have been leased and are managed by the Department of the Interior. The vast majority of this coal is in the American West. When mined and burned, this coal is responsible for more than 10 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
The groups’ letter comes as global warming is taking a tremendous toll on society, fueling rising temperatures, worsening droughts in the American West, threatening public health and risking billions in damages to U.S. national parks and other public lands. It also comes amid growing public support for keeping fossil fuels in the ground as a means to combat climate change.
“The climate crisis is now widely regarding by medical organizations throughout the world as the greatest public health threat of the 21st century,” said Brian Moench, president of the board of directors for Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. “We are already seeing the consequences of hotter temperatures, worsening air pollution, more insect-borne diseases, food insecurity and water contamination and scarcity. Those trends will become much worse if we fail to act.”
Last year scientists reported that to rein in global temperature increases, more than 90 percent of all coal reserves in the United States would have to remain untouched. Further reports have found more than 100 million metric tons of carbon pollution stands to be prevented annually by keeping publicly owned fossil fuels in the ground. This week, 67 prominent climate scientists called on the administration to fight global warming by permanently ending coal leasing on public lands.
Another recent study found that making permanent the moratorium on new coal leasing in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana — the largest coal-producing region in the nation — could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions while still meeting foreseeable power demands. The fact is that current federal coal leases will last through 2040 and issuing any new leases is incompatible with meeting the U.S. commitment to the Paris agreement to limit global warming.
The groups joining the letter to President Obama include WildEarth Guardians, the Center for Biological Diversity, Rainforest Action Network, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, New Energy Economy, Montana Environmental Information Center, Western Environmental Law Center, Grand Canyon Trust, Science and Environmental Health Network and Great Old Broads for Wilderness.
While the coalition today is calling for reforms to lead to the end of the federal coal program, the groups’ letter also joined thousands of Americans in calling on the Obama administration to ensure a “just transition” away from coal, to provide assistance to communities for economic planning and development and to prioritize transition as a reform goal.
The Interior Department expects to release an interim report by the end of 2016 with conclusions from its public process.
Additional Group Statements
“If science, not politics, is the guide for the decision on public lands management then the issue is absolutely clear: the federal coal-leasing program must be terminated,” said Mariel Nanasi, executive director of the New Mexico-based New Energy Economy. “It’s time for the administration to put science and our future ahead of politics and protect our climate.”
“In coal country, like Utah where I’m from, the legacy spans more than a century. Local coal jobs mean income to support family, benefits and getting to work close to home. The hard facts are that only a handful of people benefit while the majority of the costs — health, environmental, economic — are borne by frontline workers and communities, and will be felt by generations to come,” said Kaitlin Butler, program director, Extreme Energy program of the Science and Environmental Health Network. “Ending coal in coal country is hard, complicated. Climate change is straightforward; we have a big-time problem that calls for urgent action, status-quo is catastrophic. A Just Transition is a way to confront the roots of the climate crisis, which are the roots of an extractive economy; it’s about the future of the planet and a new economy. President Obama and Secretary Jewell, you have the opportunity to be proactive and visionary and begin to shift this legacy of debts in a real way. It’s hard and important. And it’s the only way forward.”
Detailed comments submitted today can be downloaded here.
Kyle Tisdel, Western Environmental Law Center, (575) 613-8050, Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians, (303) 437-7663, Michael Saul, Center for Biological Diversity, (303) 915-8308,
Denni Cawley, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, (385) 707-3677,
Mariel Nanasi, New Energy Economy, (505) 989-7262,
Kaitlin Butler, Science and Environmental Health Network, (801) 910-4820,