The Obama administration has been taking forceful measures to fight against climate change.
Last year, President Barack Obama initiated plans to tackle greenhouse gases coming from coal-fired power plants. With the revised Clean Power Plan, it is expected that the carbon emissions from the power sector in the United States will be reduced. The plan demands a 32 percent cut from 2005 carbon emission levels within 15 years.
Now, as Obama's term nears its end, the White House on Friday brought a temporary halt to new federal coal mining leases. The suspension immediately takes place, but it does not instantly halt coal mining and production that are currently underway.
The moratorium comes just days after Obama's last State of the Union Address. The president said on Jan. 12 that his goal is to change how the government manages its coal and oil resources in order to reflect the costs imposed on taxpayers and the planet.
No Federal Leases Until Thoroughly Reviewed By The Interior Department
At the same time, a special committee will conduct a three-year review focused on bringing coal leasing in line with the country's climate policy.
"Given serious concerns raised about the federal coal program, we're taking the prudent step to hit pause on approving significant new leases so that decisions about those leases can benefit from the recommendations that come out of the review," said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
Burning coal and other fossil fuels for electricity is the largest single source of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. Data suggests that it accounts for about 31 percent of all greenhouse gases in the country.
Meanwhile, about 40 percent of all the coal produced in the United States comes from mines on federal public lands, mostly in the West.
There were about 308 operational coal mining leases on at least 464,000 acres of public lands in New Mexico, Utah, Montana, Colorado and Wyoming as of the end of 2014. There is an additional 10,500 acres in Alabama, West Virginia and Kentucky.
Jewell said a thorough review of when, where and how coal is leased for future mining on federal lands is required to ensure that the government's coal resources are managed in an eco-friendly way.
It will also guarantee that coal royalty rates will allow taxpayers and communities to get a fair return on their resources, she said.
Why The Coal Leasing Review Is Being Introduced Immediately
Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Director Neil Kornze said the coal leasing suspension is being introduced as soon as possible because when a major coal lease is issued, it represents a multi-decade commitment to coal mining on a large area of land. The BLM is responsible for overseeing all federal oil, coal and gas resources.
"We want to make sure we're comfortable with those types of commitments," said Kornze.
He said their goal is to make sure the coal program is aligned with energy security and the advocacy against climate change.
The BLM last year issued a plan for 5 million acres of northeast Wyoming. The plan revealed that more than 10 billion tons of coal could be taken from 106,400 acres by 2035. This can happen if existing coal mines are allowed to expand.
Minor Exceptions And Rules
Minor exceptions will be made on the suspension, primarily for emergencies. One such exception is when a coal mine is threatened with closure if it has less than three years of coal reserves remaining, the Interior Secretary said.
Aside from that, the moratorium does not apply to metallurgical coal, which is used to form steel, or to coal leasing on tribal land.
"We haven't done a top-to-bottom review of the program in more than 30 years," said Jewell, referring to the full review of the coal program conducted during the Nixon and Reagan administrations.
A coal leasing moratorium had been implemented on both occasions.
Jewell said the previous federal coal program was designed to scrape as much coal as possible from the ground.
"That's the program we've been operating ever since," she said.
Mixed Reactions From Experts And Environmental Groups
Policy Director Jayni Hein of the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University believes that the moratorium and the comprehensive review represent a major shift that will help modernize the federal coal leasing program.
"The analysis should account for direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions, and use tools like the social cost of carbon and social cost of methane," said Hein, adding that putting a dollar sign on the climate effects of coal production will strengthen the case for economic reform.
Environmental groups praised the action as they believe the moratorium is a sign that the administration is leading the world in the fight against climate change.
"This is a historic decision that greatly improves the world's chances of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change and has burnished President Obama's climate legacy," said Erich Pica, president of environmental group Friends of the Earth.
However, groups within the coal industry were critical of Obama's actions.
"At this point, it is obvious that the President and his administration won't be satisfied until coal is completely eradicated from our energy mix," said U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy CEO Karen Harbert.
"Their foolish crusade takes away one of America's greatest strengths - our diverse mix of energy sources. If the President wants electricity rates to skyrocket - as he once said he did - he's on the right path," Harbert added.