Obama May Talk Tough on Climate Change—but He Still Subsidizes Coal Mining

A report finds that carbon emissions from coal mined from public lands exceed those of the European Union.

(Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

Kristine Wong is a regular contributor to TakePart and a multimedia journalist who reports on energy, the environment, sustainable business, and food.

With the Obama administration’s push to cut carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, it looks like the United States is getting serious about fighting climate change.

Or not.

A new report from environmental group Greenpeace finds the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has issued subsidized leases to energy companies that have allowed them to extract 2.2 billion tons of coal from public lands since President Obama took office.

That coal would emit 3.9 billion metric tons of carbon pollution when burned—an amount that exceeds the European Union’s 2012 emissions and is equal to the annual emissions of more than 825 million cars.

“The federal coal leasing program is unlocking amounts of carbon pollution that has a serious global impact,” said Joe Smyth, a Greenpeace spokesperson. “The Bureau of Land Management needs to manage it more responsibly and take into account the added emissions. Strip mining also has an effect on local ranchers by affecting air and water quality, as well as drying up springs for cattle.”

A BLM representative did not immediately return a request for comment. 

While the government has collected $2.3 billion from those leases, the impact from the coal’s carbon emissions could actually end up costing up to $530 billion in health problems and environmental damage, according to the report.

The cheap leases have allowed energy companies to mine the coal at an average price of about $1.03 per ton.

That’s quite a deal. Last week, coal was selling on the spot market for between $12.25 and $63.70 a ton, depending on its quality, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Ninety-eight percent of the federal leases are being granted in Wyoming and Montana’s Powder River Basin, but land in Colorado and New Mexico has also been affected, Smyth said.

The largest deal brokered during the Obama administration has been with BTU Western Resources, which in October 2012 leased land containing more than 721 million tons of coal. That coal would emit 1.3 billion metric tons of carbon emissions when burned, the report said.

But last month, a federal court stopped the BLM from granting a Colorado lease to Arch Coal. The court scuttled the deal because it said the government did not adequately consider the effect of the lease on climate change.

Still, new deals continue to move forward. A lease application from coal producer Bowie Resources to extract eight million tons of coal in Colorado will be reviewed by the BLM on Wednesday. It appears that Bowie will likely ship this coal overseas, according to a recent report by The Sightline Institute.

Greenpeace is calling on U.S. Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell to put a moratorium on the coal leasing program.

“We’re talking about whether we should be leasing the coal in the first place—when you put more coal on the market, it keeps the price lower, and it encourages more consumption,” Smyth said. “A key component to any reform is to include the damages and costs to society at large to climate change, and right now none of that is being taken into account.”

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