Â Â Â By David Roberts
Coal should stay in the ground
Iâ€™ve mostly been offering modest praiseÂ for Obamaâ€™s climate plan, but there are some notable oversights. While it addresses U.S. coal-fired plants through EPA regulations, it neglects another, equally large aspect of the coal problem. Specifically, Iâ€™m talking about coal mining, leasing, transport, and export in the U.S. Northwest. Thereâ€™s a bad situation there and itâ€™s getting worse.
Sweet Deal for Coal Companies on Montana and Wyoming Public Lands
The Powder River Basin stretches across southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming. It is rich with low-grade (dirty) coal. Most of that coal is on public land, owned by you and me. What you and I are doing at the moment, via the Bureau of Land Management in the Department of the Interior, isÂ leasing the mineral rightsÂ on those public lands to coal companies forÂ pennies on the dollar.
Domestic demand for coal is declining (and will decline further once EPA regulations are in place), so what these coal companies want to do is start shipping the coal by rail to the West Coast and from there exporting it to China and other coal-hungry developing countries, where it sells for prices up to seven times higher than in the U.S.
Itâ€™s a sweet deal for the coal companies:Â buy low, sell high. But itâ€™s a raw deal for everyone else and a disaster for the climate.
Joe Smyth has a great post about the rotten coal-leasing program here, and I wrote about the push for coal-export terminalsÂ here. Thereâ€™s lots of background in those posts if you want it. In this post, Iâ€™ll mostly focus on the topic at hand, which is what Obama can and should do about it.
President Obama Can and Must Act to End Coal Leases on Montana and Wyoming Public Lands
First, the coal-leasing program. AÂ recent reportÂ from the Inspector General at Interior revealed that the program is (or rather, remains, afterÂ decadesÂ ofÂ corruptionÂ [PDF]) terribly run, with spotty enforcement, very little competitive bidding, disregard of rising exports, and prices that fall well below going market rates. Overall, writesÂ The New York Times, the programâ€™s failures â€œdeprived taxpayers of almost $30 billion over the previous 30 years.â€
The BLM says it has a â€œtask forceâ€ looking into it, for whatever thatâ€™s worth. Obama should make it a priority to finally clean up that cesspool.
But he should go farther than that. The problem is not just that the public is leasing coal at below-market rates, itâ€™s thatÂ market rates are too low. Coal markets do not currently internalize the costs imposed by carbon pollution (theÂ â€œsocial cost of carbonâ€). Obama should insist that the social cost of carbon be integrated into the leasing program. That would more fairly balance the publicâ€™s interest in revenue from leases with its interest in a livable climate. Such a move would substantially reduce the the amount of coal leased on public land â€” as it should.
Second, coal exports. â€œTurning Cascadia into a conveyor belt for coal,â€ as KC GoldenÂ puts it, flies in the face of the regionâ€™s character as a nature-rich tourist destination and as a high-skill, high-tech hub. Dozens of new coal trains a day would thunder through the regionâ€™s small towns (and my beloved Seattle as well), making noise, clogging traffic, and spewing toxic dust. The coal would then be loaded on to giant, polluting ships in giant, polluting ports, turning the bucolic coastal towns where they are located into loud, dirty industrial hubs. All to ship coal the American public got scammed out of to China, where it will be burned and accelerate climate change.
Itâ€™s insane. And itâ€™s running into resistance that may prove fatal. Three of the six proposed coal export terminals have been scrapped and the othersÂ face serious problems. Delay alone could kill the remaining ports, as there are signs that Chinaâ€™s demand for coal may fall short of expectations. News of slowing Chinese growth is part of what sentÂ coal stocks tumblingÂ the other day.
Nothing Short of a Comprehensive Environmental Assessment is Needed
Whatâ€™s needed is a comprehensive environmental assessment of the whole network of coal leases, trains, and ports, an assessment that includesÂ the effects on carbon emissions. (Preliminary analysis shows that â€” shocker â€” exporting the coal wouldÂ raise carbon emissions[PDF].) Only the feds can do that kind of analysis. The governors of both Washington and Oregon have asked the feds for one, as have mayors, members of Congress, and activists. But just the other day, the Army Corps of EngineersÂ refusedÂ (again). Thatâ€™sÂ Obamaâ€™sÂ corps. He should kick their asses into gear and get a comprehensive assessment underway.
Remember what ObamaÂ said about Keystone: â€œOur national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.â€ How does turning over one of the worldâ€™s biggest dirty coal fields to private companies for cheapÂ not exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution?
Of course it does. Digging up and burning that Powder River Basin coal will put enoughÂ carbon in the atmosphereÂ to undo all of Obamaâ€™s other climate work.
If Obama really believes, as he proclaimed on Tuesday, that increasing climate pollution is not in the nationâ€™s interests, then he needs to get serious about stopping coal leasing and coal exports in the Northwest.Î¦
David Roberts is a staff writer for Grist.org.