Our nation's federal coal program needs a major overhaul.
When I was director of the Bureau of Land Management, which manages our nation's public lands under the Department of the Interior, we aimed to give Americans a fair return from the mining of publicly owned coal deposits in the western U.S.
It's clear now that this program, which produces 40 percent of our nation's coal, is seriously flawed.
Whether it's revelations by government investigators that coal is being leased to private companies at below fair market value; growing consensus that royalties (what companies pay taxpayers in return for profiting off the coal they produce) are outdated; or mounting agreement that the program is inconsistent with our nation's climate goals, there's no denying that reform is needed.
Even Interior Secretary Sally Jewell remarked in March that,"It's time for an honest and open conversation about modernizing the federal coal program."
I'm with the secretary. Yet while we have our conversation about reforming the federal coal program, Interior has to get serious about matching its words with its actions.
Coal is mined for one reason: to be burned. Already, more than 10 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions can be traced back to the federal coal program. Yet from the West Elk Mountains of Colorado to Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, billions of tons of publicly owned coal are currently on the table.
Just last month, Interior proposed plans that would make more than 80 billion more tons of coal available for strip mining. If this much coal is stripped from the ground, it stands to unleash 130 billion tons of carbon — more than 20 times the total greenhouse gas emissions released by the U.S. every year.
Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency is slated to finalize its Clean Power Plan this summer, which aims to cut carbon emissions by 5.3 billion tons. It's not a stretch to say that Interior's coal plans will smother these reductions.
It's a shocking inconsistency by the Obama administration.
Our federal coal program is based on a system where carbon emissions are completely ignored. The effect is that taxpayers subsidize the extraction of coal, allowing industry to pay rock bottom prices while we shoulder the climate costs.
The disparity between what is paid compared to the cost of coal is confirmed by recent reports from the International Monetary Fund. Taking into account climate and other environmental impacts, the IMF found that fossil fuels globally are subsidized to the tune of $10 million per minute, with coal reaping about 50 percent of those subsidies even in the U.S.
Consider that while Interior often sells coal for less than $1 per ton, the costs of carbon emissions may be as high as $200 per ton. That's a cost that future generations and we must bear in the form of disasters due to drought, fires, floods and other weather extremes.
Selling more coal before we've had a chance to reform how the federal coal program accounts for climate impacts is not only contrary to the public interest, it's also a costly recipe for disaster. It stands to erode trust and confidence that reforms will ever be realized.
That's why there's an urgent need for Interior to put the brakes on selling more coal.
I'm not alone in making this call. U.S. Sen. Ed Markey recently introduced legislation that would impose a "temporary moratorium on new coal lease sales" until reforms are completed. Other groups — including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, and WildEarth Guardians — have echoed the appeal.
While President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency are courageously moving our nation forward to confront climate change, the Department of the Interior seems bent on sitting at the sidelines.
The federal coal program is clearly no longer serving our nation's economic or environmental interests. For the sake of the American taxpayer and the climate, it's time for Interior to start leading. With 10 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions tied to federal coal, Jewell can make a huge difference.
It's time for Interior to get serious and take a time out on leasing more coal.
Jim Baca was director of the Bureau of Land Management from 1993 to 1994.