The Dirty Truth About Coal Mining On Federal Lands

Coal is dirty.

It pollutes the environment, leading to smog in densely populated cities. It pollutes the lungs, leading to asthma, cancer, heart and lung ailments, and neurological problems. It’s accelerating the effects of the current climate crisis, in exchange costing Americans more than $20 billion a year.

It begs the question, why is the federal government keeping this industry afloat?

The demand for coal has decreased in recent decades as mining companies have faced competition from cheaper fuels and rising costs to control pollution from coal. The coronavirus pandemic has further reduced the demand, yet the Trump administration in 2020 assisted the failing industry up by opening tens of thousands of acres of public lands to new mining leases.

About 40% of coal burned in the U.S. comes from federal leases.
Source: Adobe Stock/martinlisner
About 40% of coal burned in the U.S. comes from federal leases.

Trump first lifted an Obama-era freeze on new coal leases on public lands in April 2019, ending what he called the “war on coal,” the Associated Press reports. However, a federal judge halted that measure pending an environmental review.

The following February, the Department of the Interior hurried through an abbreviated review that claimed coal sales from public lands have in a negligible increase in greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

Federal fossil fuel production causes about a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution.
Source: Adobe Stock/fotosr52
Federal fossil fuel production causes about a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution.

According to nonprofit public interest environmental law organization Earthjustice, the assessment looked at only four coal leases previously issued by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and did not consider BLM’s other coal-leasing activities over the 570-million acre federal mineral estate, which contains approximately 255 billion tons of mineable coal.

“The result of this environmental review was cooked from the start—the Trump administration tried to end the coal moratorium three years ago, but was so sloppy that a judge told them to try again,” Jennifer Rokala, the executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, said in a statement.

“Instead of ensuring our public lands are part of the climate solution, the former oil lobbyist in charge of the Interior Department is trying to open even more places for drilling and mining,” Rokala added. 

Federal coal production by itself caused 13 percent of all U.S. CO2 pollution in 2014.
Source: Adobe Stock/photollurg
Federal coal production by itself caused 13 percent of all U.S. CO2 pollution in 2014.

As the Center for Biological Diversity maintains, the department’s abbreviated version of an “environmental assessment” is typically paired with actions that have no significant environmental impact. The more rigorous “environmental impact statement” (EIS), is required for significant federal actions. The Interior Department requires an EIS for each federal coal lease, yet overhauling the entire program was sent through the environmental assessment fast track.

The DOI gave the public just 15 days to comment on its 35-page environmental assessment, and did not consult with tribes or wildlife agencies regarding impacts to cultural resources or endangered species.

About 40% of coal burned in the U.S. comes from federal leases, primarily in Western states including Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Montana and New Mexico, the AP reports. This amounts to about 4 billion tons of coal mined from federal reserves in the past decade, contributing $10 billion in the form of royalties and other payments to the DOI, less than half as much as what is spent on the coal industry in subsidies each year.

Unleased fossil fuels on federally owned lands contain up to 450 billion tons of potential climate pollution.
Source: Adobe Stock/Евгений Мирошниченко

Unleased fossil fuels on federally owned lands contain up to 450 billion tons of potential climate pollution.

Fossil fuels on unleased federal lands contain an estimated 450 billion tons (GtCO2e) of potential climate pollution, a study from the Center for Biological Diversity reports, while those already leased to industry contain up to 43 GtCO2e. Leased federal oil, gas and coal are meanwhile projected to last until 2055, 2044, and 2041, respectively, long after global carbon budgets have been exhausted.

According to a study conducted for the U.S. Geological Survey, federal fossil fuel production is responsible for about a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution, while coal production on federally owned lands caused 13 percent of all U.S. CO2 pollution in 2014.

A study published in Climatic Change estimates that a federal fossil fuel leasing ban would reduce CO2 emissions by 280 million tons per year, ranking it among the most ambitious federal climate policy proposals in recent years.

With your help, smart policies like this have a good chance of being implemented.

Join the growing number of concerned individuals who are demanding the U.S. DOI restore the moratorium on coal mining on federally owned lands. Click below to make a difference.

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