The Interior Department will launch a comprehensive review to identify and evaluate potential reforms to the federal coal program as part of the president’s State of the Union address to begin moving toward a clean energy economy.
The review will look into concerns raised by the Government Accountability Office, the Interior’s Inspector General, members of Congress and the public. The review, in the form of a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS), will take a look at issues such as how, when and where to lease; how to account for the environmental and public health impacts of federal coal production; and how to ensure taxpayers are earning a fair return for the use of their public resources.
“Given what we know about coal’s costs and given huge recent changes in the structure of the industry, it’s a critical time for the nation to pause the federal coal program and take fresh stock of the effects of this program has on the environment and our communities,” said Bob LeResche, chair of the Powder River Basin Council.
As with previous programmatic reviews in the 1970s and 1980s, the Interior Department will institute a pause on issuing new coal leases while the review is underway. The pause will not apply to existing coal production activities. There will be some exceptions to the pause, including for metallurgical coal that is typically used in steel production, small lease modifications and emergency leasing, including where there is a demonstrated safety need or insufficient reserves. In addition, pending leases that have already completed an environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act and received a final Record of Decision or Decision Order by a federal agency under existing regulations will be allowed to complete the final procedural steps to secure a lease or lease modification. Companies can continue to mine the coal reserves already under lease during and after the pause, estimated to be enough to sustain current levels of production from federal land for approximately 20 years.
“There have been more than 15 investigations from both inside and outside the government, and all of them have found massive costs to taxpayers from mismanagement of the federal coal program,” said Steve Charter, a past chair of the Montana-based Northern Plains Resource Council. “Public lands and public resources should be managed for the public good—not for the bottom lines of private corporations. I’m glad to see the Administration taking a step toward ensuring that taxpayers receive a fair return on coal that we all own.”
Secretary Jewell also said the department will undergo a series of good government reforms to improve transparency and administration of the federal coal program, including establishing a publicly available database to account for carbon emitted from fossil fuels developed on public lands and requiring Bureau of Land Management offices to publicly post online pending requests to lease coal or reduce royalties.
The PEIS will begin with public sessions in early 2016, and an interim report will be issued by the end of 2016. The full review is expected to take approximately three years.