WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Obama administration issued a moratorium Friday on new coal mining leases on federal lands to review the merits of the decades-old program.
In announcing the decision, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said that the moratorium would allow the Interior Department to conduct what she called a “comprehensive review of the program” to gauge concerns about low-cost leases and pollution.
“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,” Jewell said in a statement.
The review process is expected to take about three years to complete and will focus on the program’s environmental and financial impacts.
Supporters of the coal leases say they provide jobs and revenue for states and the federal government. Opponents worry about the environmental impact of coal and are concerned that the government is undercompensated for its leases.
The moratorium will not affect existing coal mining leases, which Interior Department estimates say should be able to sustain their levels of production for “approximately 20 years.” About 40 percent of the nation’s coal is mined from public lands.
At least 30 mining applications in nine states would be blocked under the directive, according to a Bureau of Land Management list obtained by The Associated Press. Some of the largest projects are in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, the nation’s top coal-producing region.
Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, said the moratorium “jeopardizes America’s energy future” and would affect communities across Colorado that rely on coal production for energy and for jobs.
“This decision reeks of contempt for rural America and for the most vulnerable Americans who will suffer as electricity prices increase and the reliability in the grid decreases. We will continue to fight to protect Americans from the president’s war on affordable energy,” Tipton said.
According to data from the BLM, more than 88,000 acres of public lands in Colorado were leased to coal mining companies in 2014.
Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association, said in an interview that the moratorium on coal would directly affect the state’s economy. Sanderson said that although coal provides 40 percent of the nation’s electricity, it provides 60 percent of Colorado’s power.
“I think this regulation threatens the forms of affordable energy for our nation, and it will also cause harm in rural Colorado, especially coupled with all of the other disastrous regulations that the administration is seeking to impose,” Sanderson said.
Sanderson added that Colorado coal producers paid nearly $37 million in federal coal royalties in 2014, a number that he said would decline once the moratorium takes effect.
But environmental groups view the moratorium as a step in the right direction, saying that it represents a further commitment to curtailing the buildup of greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.
Erin Overturf, the senior staff attorney for Western Resource Advocates, a nonprofit conservation organization that focuses on environmental issues in western states, said the temporary moratorium to review the program was long overdue.
“It’s been 30 years since the administration undertook an evaluation, whether the leasing program is good for the environment and whether it’s good for customers,” Overturf said. “A lot about our understanding of the role of fossil fuels and climate change has changed, and so I think it’s high time that the administration undertook that kind of analysis.”
Overturf added that the moratorium would limit the amount of coal flooding the market from new coal leases, which often displaced other forms of renewable energy.
“It’s important to think about the impact that those new coal leases would have on the broader electricity market and whether an artificially low price for coal leasing – which is one of the things they’re evaluating – is displacing cleaner resources that we could be using instead,” she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Edward Graham is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.