Massive New Proposed Federal Coal Leases Sound Alarm Bells

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has just made an under-the-radar decision that threatens to set back U.S. progress on clean energy and climate change. President Obama has made some big steps forward on clean energy, including the Clean Power Plan which will reduce carbon pollution from power plants, and stronger fuel efficiency standards for cars, trucks and planes. Renewable energy sources like wind and solar are competing dollar-for-dollar with fossil fuels, and advocates have won the retirement of 190 U.S. coal plants since 2010. Last year for the first time in over 40 years, carbon emissions flatlined while the economy grew. We are making progress toward clean energy in the U.S.

But a recent move by BLM would take us in exactly the opposite direction. BLM has just released a resource management plan that calls for up to 10 billion tons of coal development and thousands of new fracking and oil and gas wells in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. At a time when the rest of the Obama Administration is taking meaningful steps to address climate disruption, the carbon impact of BLM’s proposal is enormous. To put this in perspective, BLM’s plan could add up to 16.9 billion metric tons of carbon pollution to the atmosphere -- the equivalent of 19 times the carbon pollution generated by all U.S. passenger cars in a year.

Unfortunately, this plan, known as the Buffalo resource management plan, is not an outlier for BLM. As part of its landscape-level planning efforts, the agency is also proposing that industry be allowed to develop a whopping 71.2 billion tons of coal from BLM's Miles City planning area in Montana. At a time when scientists and policy experts around the globe are sounding the alarm about the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground in order to stave off the worst effects of climate disruption, why is BLM looking to lock in billions of tons of climate pollution that industry doesn’t need and the market can't sustain? This plan is frankly an industry dream that only highlights how disconnected BLM is from the urgency of the situation and how out of step the agency is with the rest of the Obama Administration on climate.

These dangerously short-sighted plans from the BLM are inconsistent with the Obama administration's climate change goals and out of step with the priorities of U.S. voters, who increasingly favor renewable energy over polluting coal.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who heads up the BLM, has expressed a desire to hold an "honest and open conversation" about reforming the federal coal program. She also acknowledges that government "must do more to cut greenhouse gas pollution that is warming our planet."

Turning vast new areas of federal lands over to private coal companies at a cost of billions of tons carbon pollution is not "doing more" to cut greenhouse gas pollution. Fossil fuels produced from public lands are not only costing U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars a year in climate change-related damages, they're also a sweetheart deal for coal companies that hits taxpayers in the pocketbook today, because the coal is sold at far below market price. Over the last 30 years, analysts estimate that the BLM has squandered nearly $30 billion by failing to charge market prices for coal mined on public lands

While the Sierra Club welcomes the Secretary's commitment to confront the climate challenges facing our country head on, we are still waiting for that open and honest conversation about the climate impacts of the federal coal program to begin. And until it does, the Sierra Club is calling on Secretary Jewell to at least be upfront with the public about the climate impacts of BLM's federal coal leasing program. "Business as usual" for BLM is taking the country down an expensive, unnecessary, and potentially ruinous climate path.

BLM's plans turn up the heat on a cooking planet at the very moment when the Obama administration is taking significant steps to demonstrate international leadership on climate. The U.S. simply cannot afford to keep subsidizing coal mining on public lands, and the Interior Department must not continue to blindly expand the scope of this program without informing itself and the public of the predictable, expensive, and avoidable climate consequences.

The Obama Administration's decisions about federal coal leasing are some of the most significant climate decisions this President will make. We need strong leadership from Secretary Jewell and President Obama, not business as usual from the BLM. Our future, and their climate legacy, depends on it. 

Photo of a coal mine in the Powder River Basin courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.

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