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Interior Department Ignores Coal's Link to Climate Change

In the not-too-distant past, Interior Sec. Ken Salazar issued a bold call to action for his department. With authority over hundreds of millions of acres of public lands and the vast majority of coal, oil, and gas owned by taxpayers, he stated that his department would be "taking the lead" in protecting the nation's wildlife and water from climate change, and that doing so would "require us to change how we manage the lands."

DOI had a great chance recently to live up to the secretary's words by changing the way it manages the nation's coal - a key contributor to climate change. 

Sadly, his staff has concluded that doing nothing is easier than leadership or change.Here's the background: 

The Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana is the nation's largest single source of coal for power plants.  More than 40 percent of the nation's coal - the vast majority of that federally owned - comes from the Powder.  But through an arcane procedure in the 1990, the Bush I administration determined that the Powder was not a "coal producing region."  This "decertification" means that coal companies have been able to propose new leases tailored to their wishes, to ensure that there will be no competition for leases.  

In short, "decertification" allowed coal companies to rig the process so just one company will bid on a lease, so coal stays cheap for them.  And it has.  This federal subsidy to giant coal companies help puts Powder River coal at an advantage when competing against other coal, but also when compared to more climate friendly energy sources such as wind and solar.  And there's a significant climate change cost to all this - one-seventh of all CO2 emissions in the U.S. come from Powder River coal after it is burned in power plants across the country.

This didn't sit well with conservation groups, including WIldEarth Guardians and the Sierra Club, who reasonably argued that since 40 percent of the nation's coal was coming from the Powder, it had to be a "coal production region."  So, in 2009 they filed a petition with the new "leaders" on climate change at the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management to fix the problem.  The petition also pressed BLM to consider ways to better account for, and to reduce or offset, the climate change impacts from the mostrous amounts of federally owned coal being burned.

They got their answer from the BLM last week and it's not pretty.

BLM Director Bob Abbey apparently didn't get the memo that he should take a leadership role in addressing climate change, and, thus, the BLM needed to change the way its lands are managed.  Instead, the BLM refused to call the Powder - the source of more than 2/5ths of the nation's coal - a "coal production region."  It's an absurd conclusion that doesn't pass the laugh test.  But it will delight coal companies in the Powder.  The companies will keep their subsidy, continuing to draw their own lease boundaries for federal coal and winning single-bid leases. Taxpayers and clean energy producers will be the losers.

Abbey went further, saying that the BLM couldn't - and wouldn't - try to reduce climate change impacts from coal mining, or require coal mines to offset climate change impact.  Abbey even refused to try to require his agency to figure out the climate change impacts of the huge amounts of pollution directly caused by burning Powder River coal.  It's just too hard, he complained.

This isn't leadership.  And it isn't change.  It's just business as usual. 

Business as usual is not what Sec. Salazar promised.  And it's an approach the planet can't take when it comes to climate change.