Obama blocks new coal mines on public land

US Department of the Interior announces moratorium on leases while overhauling system to reflect climate cost of extracting fossil fuels

(Pic: Flickr/Dennis Dimick)

(Pic: Flickr/Dennis Dimick)

By Megan Darby

The US president is moving to block new coal mine leases on public land, in light of the dirty fuel’s climate impacts.

Barack Obama’s administration announced the moratorium on Friday, alongside an overhaul of the system for extraction royalties.

That will hike costs for a sector already hit by low coal prices, as governments around the world curb use of the most carbon-intensive fuel. Some 40% of US coal is mined on federal land. At current rates, those mines are set to be exhausted within 20 years.

The move supplements last year’s flagship Clean Power Plan, which mandated substantial cuts in carbon emissions from power plants, spelling coal’s demise in sourcing the country’s electricity generation.

In his final state of the union address on Tuesday, President Obama signalled a shift of focus from greenhouse gas emissions to the fossil fuels that generate them.

“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,” he said.

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The Interior Department is to publish a database of the carbon emitted from fossil fuels developed on public lands, as well as reviewing the cash levied from such leases.

Department chief Sally Jewell said in a statement: “We have an obligation to current and future generations to ensure the federal coal program delivers a fair return to American taxpayers and takes into account its impacts on climate change.”

Tom Sanzillo, director of finance at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, said the reforms were long overdue.

“The coal industry is failing spectacularly,” he said. “Current policy only props up a business model that cannot compete with low natural gas prices, rising market penetration of renewables and increased public support for alternatives to coal.

“It is plain that the country is moving away from coal usage, a policy trend that is inconsistent with providing public subsidies to coal exporters.”

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Campaigning network 350.org also welcomed the review. “This moratorium will send coal to the mortuary,” said policy director Jason Kowalski. “Any proper accounting of coal’s impact on the climate will conclude that this fossil fuel needs to be kept deep underground.

“Taxpayers will save a lot more money by avoiding the disastrous climate and health impacts of burning coal than we’ll get from a few extra dollars tacked onto new coal lease sales.”

Worldwide, efforts to tackle climate change have centred on regulating emissions, which ultimately curbs demand for fossil fuels. Yet many governments simultaneously support their coal, oil and gas industries, citing energy security and economic concerns.

Scientists calculate more than 80% of coal, half of natural gas and a third of oil reserves cannot be burned if warming is to be held to 2C – the upper limit reaffirmed in a UN climate pact last month.

Kiribati president Anote Tong last year called for a global moratorium on new coal mines, to safeguard his low-lying island state from rising seas.

In the US, campaigners have argued that climate policy must also address supply, mobilising under the slogan #keepitintheground.

Obama appears to be coming round to that view, blocking the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline on climate grounds. Friday’s announcement is a further sign his interest in the climate agenda did not wane with the Paris agreement.

This article was updated with more details and reaction after the move was officially announced

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