Opinion

Why Coal Leasing Reform Matters

Nationwide, our public lands are beautiful places for all Americans to enjoy and cherish. From majestic mountains to spacious prairies and grasslands, these landscapes are home to an unsurpassed natural legacy that inspire millions of visitors every year.

Unfortunately, what many Americans don’t realize is that the Bureau of Land Management allows coal companies to mine coal on these same federal public lands. Most of this coal lies underground in grasslands, ranches, and delicate natural habitats. In fact, 40 percent of all coal burned in the United States comes from our public lands.

For decades, coal companies have ripped 400 million tons of coal from our public lands every year, burning it in power plants, slowing clean energy development, worsening climate disruption, and polluting our communities. Even worse, they’ve done this at taxpayer expense, allowing companies to take the coal from our public lands for far below market value. Pollution from burning coal is our biggest source of climate pollution – it also dirties our air and water, and triggers asthma attacks and other respiratory illnesses that can lead to irreversible lung damage and even premature death.

Thankfully, in late January, President Obama and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced a formal plan to consider reforming the federal coal leasing program, including a pause to approving new and modified coal leases, with some exceptions.  A key first step is hearing from Americans about what the administration should consider in its analysis of the coal leasing program, called a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS).

That’s why, starting the third week of May and going through the month of June, federal public hearings will be held in Casper, Wyoming; Grand Junction, Colorado; Knoxville, Tennessee; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Seattle, Washington, allowing American families to speak out about their concerns.

For the first time, the U.S. will examine the extent to which all coal mined from public lands is destabilizing the climate. This will be the first PEIS on federal coal leasing since the Reagan administration and will provide the foundation for fixing a broken and outdated system.

By speaking out now, we can use this historic opportunity to push the federal government to protect the health of more families, save taxpayers more money, and increase clean energy development. Doing this will move our country toward an important goal that President Obama and climate scientists have said we must pursue: a planned transition away from fossil fuels by keeping them in the ground.

As we move toward this goal, however, we must also ensure a just transition for communities reliant on coal as America shifts away from it. This means we must secure robust investments in coal communities that focus on economic development and diversification, shore up coal worker livelihoods as they transition to new careers, and replace any lost tax revenues to aid communities impacted by coal’s decline. With the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) review, we have an opportunity to make smart choices about the future of U.S. energy policy and help coal workers transition to new economic opportunities.

A fair review by DOI will uncover the true cost of coal mining on public lands on our health, our wallets, and our planet. Requiring coal companies to pay the true cost of this coal and the reclamation of damaged lands and streams will allow clean energy to compete on an even playing field. For too long, a flood of subsidized federal coal has harmed our communities, stunted clean energy growth, and hurt our climate.

Ultimately, by keeping dirty fuels in the ground and generating electricity with clean energy, we can avoid the pollution, costs, and health risks associated with coal. We must stop subsidizing the profits of coal companies on the backs of taxpayers, hold coal companies accountable for cleaning up mines when the work is done, and stop prioritizing carbon-polluting coal at the expense of our climate.

Mary Anne Hitt is the Director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.

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