The White House on Friday will announce a halt to new coal mining leases on federal lands until the administration conducts a comprehensive review on coal companies' royalty fees—a move that is expected to give new momentum to the environmental campaigns calling for a post-fossil fuel era.
"The only safe place for coal in the 21st century is deep underground—these reforms will help keep more of it there," said Bill McKibben, co-founder of climate advocacy group 350.org. "And they'll set the precedent that must quickly be applied to oil and gas as well."
A moratorium would effectively block coal production on federal lands and could put the "nail in the coffin" for the rapidly dwindling coal industry, activists said. Roughly 40 percent of coal produced in the U.S. comes from reserves on federal lands.
President Barack Obama in his final State of the Union speech on Tuesday indicated he would move forward with the moratorium, stating, "Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future—especially in communities that rely on fossil fuels. That's why I'm going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet."
But 350 and other environmental groups credited the outcome to the long-term efforts of climate campaigners who brought the issue to national attention, comparing it to other recent wins like Obama's rejection last November of the Keystone XL pipeline, a controversial project that would have carted more than 800,000 barrels of tar sands daily from Alberta, Canada to oil refineries in the Gulf Coast.
People power works, they said—and it's getting stronger.
"This measure signifies a key step towards sunsetting a practice that has led to immense environmental destruction, human and health impacts, and is one of the greatest sources of carbon emissions worldwide," said Amanda Starbuck, climate and energy program director at the Rainforest Action Network (RAN).
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350.org policy director Jason Kowalski added, "This announcement is another nail in the coffin for the coal industry, and a warning to all fossil fuel companies that the era of unrestrained development is coming to an end. Over the coming months, the President will come under increasing pressure to stop offshore drilling, get tougher on fracking, and end all new fossil fuel leases on our public lands. How well he keeps fossil fuels in the ground has quickly become the new test for climate leadership."
The moratorium will have no effect on existing operations. An administration official told Yahoo News on Friday that companies will still be able to mine reserves already under lease, where "billions of tons of coal" have already been stockpiled.
As Tom Sanzillo, director of finance for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, pointed out on Friday, "Under the Obama administration the Bureau of Land Management has entered into leases on 13 applications amounting to over 2.2 billion tons of coal. These new reserves plus the reserves already under lease should offer an ample supply of coal in the coming years."
However, the vast majority of "public" fossil fuels—those sitting under federal lands—have yet to be sold to the industry.
"The coal industry, once a critical player in the energy future of the U.S., is now little more than a self-interested party seeking a bailout," Sanzillo said. "The industry has forfeited its claim to protected status...A federal lease moratorium allows the federal government, as owner of the coal, and stakeholders to establish a new business model for coal."
A report released in August 2015, compiled by environmental groups including Friends of the Earth and the Center for Biological Diversity, found that ending the policy of selling coal, oil, and gas would keep 90 percent of those fossil fuels in the ground—which would, in turn, keep 450 billion tons of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere, activists said.
"The fossil fuel industry already has five times more carbon than they can safely burn and keep global warming from running out of control. It’s high time the U.S. government got out of the business of climate destruction," Kowalski said. "This new attention to fossil fuels on public lands can’t stop with coal."