Because burning coal to generate electricity is a primary culprit in climate change, the U.S. government has been trying to limit its effects—even as it literally provides the fuel for the problem.
About 40 percent of coal mined in America is actually owned by taxpayers. Mining companies can lease the 570 million acres’ worth of mineral rights owned by the government through the federal Bureau of Land Management. The rules governing this process are likely to change for the first time since the Reagan administration. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced in January that her department would begin a three-year review of coal leasing to be sure that it provides a fair return to taxpayers and reflects the impacts of coal on the environment. One of the first steps is a series of public hearings. The first on the East Coast will be held in Knoxville tomorrow at the Tennessee Theater from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
According to a study released in March by the Center for American Progress and the Wilderness Society, taxpayer-owned gas, oil, and coal extracted from federal lands and waters by private companies creates more than one-fifth of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The current rules were written before the government set a price on the social costs of carbon—currently, $37 per metric ton of carbon dioxide—because of its climate effects leading to increased flooding, decreased farm production, and other problems.
Some federal lands aren’t eligible for coal leases, including national parks, national wildlife refuges, federally-designated wilderness areas, and military installations. That kept Great Smoky Mountains National Park free from mining even when Appalachia was a major coal center.
The current review of the coal leasing program, a “Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement,” will examine issues such as how, when, and where to lease coal mining rights on federal land; how to account for the environmental and public health impacts of federal coal production; and how to ensure American taxpayers are earning a fair return for the use of their public resources.
Until the review process is complete, the federal government will issue no new coal leases. Although mining supporters have cried foul, even mining companies themselves acknowledge that current leases will meet production needs for the next 20 years.
Most federal coal leases are in the West, although there are some in Alabama and Kentucky. The number of “active leases” in the East dropped from 27 to 9 between 1990 and 2014, according to Bureau of Land Management data.
The region that produces the most coal from federal leases is the Powder River Basin, in Wyoming and Montana. It dominates the market partly because its surface coal is cheap to mine, and partly because that coal produces less pollutants when burned. Because federal rules have required coal plants to reduce their pollution levels in recent years, power companies including the Tennessee Valley Authority have come to rely more heavily on Powder River Basin coal. Changes in the cost of mining that coal will likely be passed on to power companies and their rate payers.
According to the Sierra Club, 60 percent of the coal burned at the Kingston Plant near Knoxville comes from the Powder River Basin, although not all from federal leases.
A 2014 analysis by the Center for American Progress indicated that 13 percent of all U.S. fossil-fuel emissions come from Powder River Basin coal, which is burned in more than 200 power plants across 35 states. “This is equivalent to the annual emissions of 70 percent of all cars registered in the United States, or 1.5 times the annual emissions of Saudi Arabia,” the report states. “In fact, the Powder River Basin alone ranks globally as the seventh-largest emitter of carbon pollution annually, trailing six countries—China, the rest of the United States, India, Russia, Japan, and Germany.”
The hearings are the first step in a scoping process that will identify new rule options by the end of the year. Next year an evaluation process begins.
Media coverage indicates that the first two hearings, held last week in Salt Lake City and Casper, Wyoming, were dominated by coal company supporters.
Viewpoints may be more balanced in Knoxville, where the hearing is likely to draw groups active in fighting Appalachian coal mining even if federal leases are less relevant here. Environmental groups plan a rally at Krutch Park at noon to urge reforms. (Update 5/26: Due to rain, the rally has been moved to the East Tennessee History Center across from the Tennessee Theatre.)
Jonathan Levenshus, a Knoxville-based representative for the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign, says Knoxville is a great city for the hearings because it is near communities in Claiborne and Campbell counties, which are already transitioning away from coal and pursuing new types of economic development.
“Our goal as an organization is to rapidly move away from dirty fossil fuels,” he says. “But in that transition, we need to make sure we are protecting the livelihoods of coal workers in the communities that have relied on those energy sources as part of their local economy for years. Reforms in these programs should account for that issue, whether that’s through providing additional resources or job retraining” or other supports.
Image courtesy Brent Moore: https://www.flickr.com/photos/brent_nashville/9509709780
S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at email@example.com
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