Coal Leasing and Exports ‘Erases Everything the Obama Administration Is Trying to Do’ on Climate

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Coal Leasing and Exports ‘Erases Everything the Obama Administration Is Trying to Do’ on Climate

(Photo: Greenpeace / Tim Aubry)

The Washington Post published a front page story today showing how President Obama’s efforts to address climate change are being undermined by federal coal leasing, along with a potential increase in exports of our publicly-owned coal:

The Obama administration is seeking to curb the United States’ appetite for the basin’s coal, which scientists say must remain mostly in the ground to prevent a disastrous warming of the planet. Yet each year, nearly half a billion tons of this U.S.-owned fuel are hauled from the region’s vast strip mines, and millions of tons are shipped overseas for other countries to burn… Each shipment highlights what critics describe as a hypocrisy underlying U.S. climate policy: While boasting of pollution cuts at home, the United States is facilitating the sale of large quantities of government-owned coal abroad.

We’ve looked at this topic a bit, including a section in our report last year: Major exports of publicly owned coal would undermine global efforts to reduce carbon pollution. While the White House has so far failed to take meaningful action to stop the giveaway of our coal, it also hasn’t really tried to mount a serious public defense of the federal coal program and exports of our publicly-owned coal. Indeed, the Post story notes that “Administration officials acknowledge the policy dissonance, which stems from decades-old programs.”

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This is an important point, and something I noted last month: in fairness to the Obama administration, it is true that our coal has been badly mismanaged by BLM for decades, through several presidential administrations. It’s important to recognize that overall, these problems with the coal program have persisted despite the Obama administration, not because of it. At the same time, the fact that Interior Secretary Jewell and others in the Obama administration inherited this mess doesn’t diminish their responsibility to address it. This administration has made major changes to former administrations’ policies in many areas, including quite notably on climate change, coal pollution, public lands, and other environmental issues. They should do the same with the federal coal program.

Importantly, a former director of the BLM, the agency within the Interior Department that leases our coal, also recognizes that major exports of publicly-owned U.S. coal would undermine the Obama administration’s climate efforts. From the Washington Post story:

Some current and former U.S. officials who helped manage the federal program said increasing exports would send the wrong message to the rest of the world.

“It erases everything the Obama administration is trying to do,” said James R. Baca, a former director of the Bureau of Land Management, the Interior Department agency that oversees coal mining on government land. “The president is trying to reduce the use of coal, and these programs are going the opposite way. It doesn’t make any sense.”

This is particularly true as President Obama seeks to lead the world to a meaningful climate deal in Paris this year, as several hundred organizations wrote in a recent letter to the President: “As the world focuses on climate change in advance of negotiations in Paris this winter, we urge you to demonstrate strong climate leadership by stopping new leasing of our publicly owned fossil fuels.”

Joe Smyth

Joe Smyth is a media officer with Greenpeace. Follow him on Twitter: @joesmyth

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