Building on Keystone, Obama Should Shed More Fossil Fuel Baggage

Allowing coal mining in a roadless Colorado forest—and denying the climate impacts of that mining—are just a couple of ways the administration is undermining its climate credibility.

colorado forest
With the Paris climate talks rapidly approaching, steps can still be taken in the U.S., like protecting Colorado's roadless forest, that will improve the country's climate policies before heading to the negotiating table. (f11photo/Shutterstock)

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In less than a month, diplomats and negotiators from the United States and the rest of the world will start work in Paris on an agreement to limit the world’s carbon pollution, the leading cause of climate change.

The U.S. delegation will have the wind at its back, and some leverage to seek a strong international framework for action, following the president’s nixing of the Keystone XL pipeline project last Friday.

In explaining his decision, President Obama argued that rejecting Keystone was important because it would limit petroleum drilling and mining:

if we’re gonna prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re gonna have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them…

Well said, Mr. President.

But for all these good words—and deeds on Keystone, the Clean Power Plan and fuel economy standards—some parts of the administration continue to pull stubbornly in the opposite direction, undermining the U.S.’s credibility in Paris.

Here are three examples:

  1. Bulldozing roadless forest for 350 million tons of coal. Just days before the Paris conference gets underway, the U.S. Forest Service will take another step toward a huge expansion of coal mining across 19,000 acres of roadless forest in Colorado. Today, this forest of aspen, spruce and fir is off-limits to road construction, protecting lands enjoyed by hunters and hikers and preserving habitat that is home to lynx and black bear, beaver and elk, goshawk and owl. 

    But not for long. The Forest Service will release a draft plan this month to let Arch Coal bulldoze roads and drill well pads to mine up to 350 million tons of coal in these natural areas. On top of the greenhouse gas pollution caused by burning the coal, the mines in the area produce about a million tons of CO2 equivalent in methane every year, making these mines some of the nation’s most climate-polluting.  If “we’re gonna have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground,” as the President said, these gassy coal deposits should be a prime candidate.

  2. Ignoring the climate impact of leasing coal. The federal Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) head-in-the-sand attitude toward the impact of more coal mining is another blemish on the government’s climate record. Within weeks after the Paris talks end, BLM lawyers will argue in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals that allowing the sale and burning of more than two billion tons of coal from federal lands—enough coal to fuel all U.S. coal plants for more than two years—has zero impact on climate change because energy producers would just get their coal from someplace else if not from public lands.

    This analysis defies logic. A federal decision to restrict the supply of cheap coal will impact coal’s price, especially since 40 percent of U.S. coal production comes from federal lands. As the price of coal rises, switching to other fuels—cleaner burning natural gas or renewable sources like wind and solar—looks more attractive to those producing electricity. Climate changing emissions go down.

    How can a government that denies the climate impacts of its own actions hope to successfully address the global climate crisis?

  3. Retaining subsidies for dirty oil shale. Oil shale is a kind of pre-petroleum—a rock that hasn’t been under pressure long enough to turn liquid. But cook it for long enough at 800 degrees and you might be able to turn the rock into useable liquid fuel. There are billions of tons of this rock in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado. The problem is that cooking the rock takes (surprise!) a lot of energy, resulting in more carbon pollution, as well as huge amounts of something that is in increasing short supply in the West: water.

    President George W. Bush pushed through regulations to subsidize oil shale production by putting low royalty charges in place—initially less than half the rate charged to conventional oil and gas drillers. The good news: After we sued over the Bush-era rules, the Department of the Interior agreed in a 2011 settlement to redo the regulations within two years. The bad news: Four years later, Interior hasn’t finished the job of adopting stricter oil shale rules, and is running out of time to finish them, leaving the fuse burning on a potential carbon bomb.

Rather than drag all of this fossil fuel baggage to Paris, the president can and should take steps now—before the U.N. conference—to protect Colorado’s roadless forest, to ensure transparent accounting for carbon pollution in coal leasing and to raise the price of developing oil shale on public lands. Taking these actions, and building off his Keystone decision, would make for a more consistent and defensible national policy, raise America’s credibility, and make it more likely that the Paris delegates will reach an agreement to protect our shared future.

How about it, Mr. President?

The Road to Paris and Beyond is a blog series exploring how Earthjustice’s climate and energy work will help strengthen the goals to be set by the United States and others during the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, and the development of the new global climate agreement. The Paris Climate Change Conference (aka “COP21”) begins on November 30 and runs until December 11, 2015. 

Ted was an attorney in the Rocky Mountain regional office from 2003–2018. He protected wilderness, roadless areas and the planet's climate on behalf of conservation groups in the Four Corners' states.

Established in 1993, Earthjustice's Northern Rockies Office, located in Bozeman, Mont., protects the region's irreplaceable natural resources by safeguarding sensitive wildlife species and their habitats and challenging harmful coal and industrial gas developments.