Obama has allowed more coal to be mined on federal land than Bush—and he may not be done

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If President Obama is committed to curbing CO2 emissions, then why is his administration even considering a host of new coal production lease applications on federally owned land?

It's a question that has Brian Moench, a surgeon and the president of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, deeply concerned. This month, he issued a 96-page report warning about the dangers of continued coal mining expansion on government-owned territory in the mountain west's Powder River Basin.

Right now, 40 percent of U.S. coal production comes out of federal lands, mostly in the mountainous west—a fact that can be overlooked due to the traditional geographic connotations of coal country.


"It’s an enormous amount of CO2 being released," Moench told Fusion. "It's such a large amount that it actually exceeds the [emissions] from other [projects] that have enjoyed public attention, i.e. the Keystone Pipeline."

With 18 sales and 13 leases, Obama has already presided over a net increase in coal acreage on federal land under lease through 2013. Acreage actually declined during the George W. Bush administration.


According to the government's own methodology for estimating the social cost of carbon, Moench says, these coal leases, which are handled by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), have caused between $52 billion and $530 billion in damages.


Last year, a judge explicitly rebuked the administration for failing to consider the cost of carbon emissions in its coal leasing decisions, in a case that saw the White House take up the side of America's second-largest coal company. According to a transcript obtained by the Boston Globe's Michael Kranish, District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson ruled that in granting leases to Missouri-based Arch Coal in Colorado, the White House was putting off the day "when it’s too late to think about global warming."

“Doesn’t somebody sometime need to take very seriously what the effect that these greenhouse gases is on the world that we live in?” he asked White House council David Glazer, who could only respond, "Absolutely, and I would say that that’s Congress."


The administration declined to appeal Jackson's decision.

The parcels now under evaluation contain 10.2 billion tons of coal. Moench says the combustion of these resources would inject 16.9 billion additional metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, negating the environmental benefits projected in the administration's Clean Power Plan.


"It really makes a mockery of any sort attempt to rein in the U.S.'s contributions to overall CO2 emissions worldwide," he said.


Thanks mostly to low natural gas prices and rising power efficiency, domestic coal consumption is projected to continue to decline for the foreseeable future.

So where is all that coal going? Abroad. After a significant decline this year, U.S. coal exports are expected to start climbing again in 2016 to 11 million short tons and won't come down again for at least two years, according to the Energy Information Administration.


And taxpayers aren't even getting much return for allowing the exports to proceed, Moench says. Mining companies are paying just $2 for one ton of coal they then sell for $35 on the open market.

It is unclear when a decision on the leases will be handed down. A representative with the BLM provided the following statement:

The downturn in the coal market has affected the industry’s need for the coal currently under application in Wyoming. The BLM believes it is in the best interest of the Federal government and the American public to offer coal when economic conditions favor receiving a bid that will achieve fair market value and will receive one or more  offers. Because of these conditions, the BLM has not established a timeframe for offering the six coal tracts that are pending in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming.


But Moench says given the administration's record to date, there's no reason to think at lease some of the leases will be approved.

"They seem to be functioning at the same sort of policy level as at the end of the Bush administration, which is certainly at odds with the ideological commitment the President seems to have made," he said.


Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.