Trio of northeast U.S. senators call for temporary halt to federal coal lease sales

As President Barack Obama joined with world leaders in Paris to help craft an international agreement on climate, Senators Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., called on the President to reform the federal coal leasing program as a way to protect America’s climate change goals.

In a letter sent Dec. 1, the senators called on President Obama to use his executive authority to direct the Secretary of the Interior to significantly increase royalty rates to account for the social cost of carbon pollution from coal production on public lands and use his existing authority to prohibit the export of coal produced from public lands to foreign nations. Additionally, the senators called on the President to suspend all new coal leasing until these reforms are implemented.

Interior’s Bureau of Land Management leases much of the coal produced in the U.S., particularly at western mines, including the massive surface mines in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana. Producers like Peabody Energy, Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources rely on this coal at various mines. The senators said that between 400 million and 450 million tons of coal are produced from public lands in the United States each year, yet coal companies only pay 12.5% of the value of the natural resource, a royalty rate that does nothing to take into account the costs for climate change and human health associated with burning federally-owned coal.

“We should not take two steps forward reducing carbon pollution with the Clean Power Plan only for our federal coal program to force us to take two steps back,” said Markey in a Dec. 2 statement. “It makes no sense to subsidize coal companies to mine coal from federal lands just to export it and increase quantities of it abroad, where it will be burned to worsen climate change.”

“Economics 101 tells us that the price of a product should reflect its costs,” said Whitehouse. “When the costs of carbon pollution in the form of flood and storm damage, drought-stricken crops, and failing fisheries aren’t factored into the price of fossil fuels like coal, that’s a market failure and those costs are borne by the rest of us.” 

“If we are serious about saving the planet from devastating climate disruption, we must take the necessary steps to transition away from the dirtiest fossil fuel source – coal,” said Blumenthal. “With the international community poised to reach an historic agreement on emission reductions – an effort led by the United States – we should not undermine our position of leadership with domestic energy policies that are incompatible with our end goal.” 

The senators also introduced new legislation to reform the law that governs the federal coal program. The bill would increase the royalty rate for coal produced from surface mines on federal land and prohibit the export of coal produced on federal land. The legislation also directs the Secretary of Interior to suspend all new coal leasing until these reforms are implemented.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.