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Coal mining on federal land faces long-awaited environmental review

The Biden administration announced a plan Thursday to study a system last revised more than 40 years ago in which private companies are allowed to mine coal off government property.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Further unwinding support for the struggling coal industry that had been a cornerstone of the last administration, and a blow to environmentalists, the Department of the Interior said Thursday it will study how the leasing government land to miners affects the environment and indigenous communities.

The department announced the review in a 14-page notice submitted to the Federal Register, to be officially published Friday. In addition to investigating whether taxpayers receive a fair return on investment from the mined public land, the review will purportedly study whether the system has been “consistent with the Nation’s goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate climate change.”

A few points of consideration, according to the notice, are how and when the U.S. government decides to lease the coal and how it determines pricing. In states like Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and Utah, private coal companies pay 8% royalty rates for underground mining on federal lands. This meant the program brought in more than $500 million to federal and state entities, according to the most recent data available from 2019.

The department said it will also investigate concerns about how fluctuating market conditions impact coal-dependent communities. After 30 days of public comment, the agency plans to take its next steps by November.

Environmental advocates have been seeking such a review for years. In one 2014 lawsuit, the group Friends of the Earth and others noted that the government hadn't performed a comprehensive environmental review of its coal-leasing program since 1979 — long before the the effects of climate change drew alarm in the scientific community.

Given what we know today about the impending climate crisis, Bill Corcoran, director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, said Thursday's move needs urgent follow-up. 

“The Biden administration’s decision to review the impacts of coal leasing on public lands is a good first step and one that is long overdue. But with scientists warning of a worst case climate scenario if we do not take action, the Biden administration’s move to continue new leasing on public lands fails to meet the bold action we need,” Corcoran said in a statement Thursday. “Now more than ever, we must hold coal corporations accountable for irreversibly damaging public lands and fueling the climate crisis.”

Coal combustion is one of the top sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., and environmental advocates want the Biden administration to rein that industry in. According to a 2018 report from the U.S. Geological Survey, burning and extracting coal and oil from federal land generates around 1.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, which makes up one-quarter of total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. 

The United Nations reports every year on the toll of global warming, sounding its latest alarm earlier this month. Amid warnings of an “irreversible” rise in sea levels, the U.N. urged countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the face of other “unprecedented changes."

Conor Bernstein, a lobbyist spokesman with the National Mining Association, said Thursday that his group is looking forward to providing comments during the government review period, noting that public lands are intended for multiple uses, “including the production of affordable, reliable energy for all Americans.” 

“Federal coal production provides a fair return to the public, generating hundreds of millions of dollars of federal, state and local revenue per year, while also providing hundreds of thousands of direct and indirect high-paying jobs,” Bernstein said.

According to the Interior Department’s federal register document, the Bureau of Land Management administered 287 coal leases, across 437,039 acres in 11 states, between October 2019 and September 2020 during the last year of President Donald Trump’s single term. This land holds an estimated 7 billion tons of recoverable federal coal, that document explains. The Energy Information Administration estimates that total U.S. coal production in 2020 was around 534 million short tons, and that the United States had to import only about 1% of the coal it consumed in 2020.

Corcoran maintained, however, that the leasing program “has always been a massive giveaway to coal corporations that harm our public lands, clean air and water, and the stability of our climate.” 

“An honest review of the federal coal program should lead to a permanent ban on new coal leasing on our public lands,” the Sierra Club leader pushed.

Nearly half of annual U.S. coal production comes off of federal land, mined by private companies. While the Obama administration paused coal leasing on federal lands over environmental concerns, Trump brought back coal-lease sales in 2017, saying his predecessor's regulation “undermines American energy security, inhibits job creation, and reduces revenues to state and local governments.”

While President Joe Biden stopped oil and gas sales on his first day in office, a Trump-appointed federal judge quickly blocked the moratorium in a ruling for 13 red states purportedly have millions of dollars in revenue and thousands of jobs on the line.

Separate from the moratorium, the Interior Department has also been reviewing federal oil- and gas-leasing programs on public land and water.

Follow Alexandra Jones on Twitter.

Categories:Energy, Environment, Government

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