Obama halts new federal coal mining

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The Obama administration is halting major new leases to mine coal on federal land for about three years as it works to reform the controversial program.

Obama officials want to hold off on the new sales while they figure out how to account for climate change caused when the coal mined on federal land is burned, which could include higher fees and royalties for the private companies that extract the coal.

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The evaluation will also consider whether the government is getting a fair price for leases, answering concerns from the Government Accountability Office and elsewhere that lease sales aren’t competitive enough and that coal companies find ways to pay reduced prices for the coal.

Interior Secretary Sally JewellSally JewellInterior chief reprimands employees on ethics, sexual harassment A way out of Alaska's fiscal hole Obama to take victory lap on conservation MORE announced the moves Friday as part of President Obama’s second-term push to fight climate change.

“We have not done a top-to-bottom review of the coal program in more than 30 years,” Jewell told reporters Friday.

“That was a time ... when our nation had very different priorities and needs. The result was a federal coal program designed to get as much coal out of the ground as possible. And in many ways, that’s the program that we’ve been operating ever since.”

She stressed that the pause is in line with previous moratoria by Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and is “not a pause on coal production,” since current leases can proceed, along with some other exemptions for new leases.

Existing leases, at current production rates, have enough reserves to stretch for about 20 years, Jewell said.

“As secretary of the Interior, I think about how we can manage our resources to help drive our nation’s economy without taking our eye off the America we want to hand to our children,” she added. “That includes ensuring the federal coal program delivers a fair return to American taxpayers and takes into account one of the most pressing issues of our time: climate change.”

Shaun Donovan, director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, said the actions should not be seen as partisan.

“We hope that these are objectives that both Democrats and Republicans will be able to agree on,” he said.

Under an order Jewell signed Friday morning, her staff will work on a environmental impact statement for the coal program, which she said would take about three years.

Obama previewed the announcement Tuesday in his State of the Union address, saying he wanted to change the way federal coal and oil was managed to “better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet.

Friday’s actions do not include oil or natural gas.

Coal on federal land, managed by the Bureau of Land Management in massive areas like the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana, accounts for about 40 percent of the coal mined in the United States.

Major coal companies like Peabody Energy Corp. and Arch Coal Inc. have some of the biggest lease areas on federal land.

Republicans and their allies in business and energy balked at Obama’s announcement as another major step in the “war on coal.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) blasted the move as an attack on communities that rely on coal mining for their economies.

“President Obama has made it absolutely clear what he plans to do with America’s energy — keep it in the ground,” he said in a statement.

“The president’s policies have already ravaged coal country, destroying jobs and people’s way of life, and this will increase that suffering.”

Ryan said Congress will “continue to fight back” against Obama’s actions that hurt low-cost energy sources, though he was not specific.

“Yep, there they go again. Americans now know the 'all-of-the-above' energy agenda the President repeatedly claimed to support was an election year lie,” Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, added in a statement.

“This unprecedented action will completely shut down coal leasing on federal lands and will disproportionately harm the poorest among us.”

The National Mining Association has repeatedly pushed Interior to abandon any efforts that could increase coal prices on federal land. The group argues that halting new leases would increase energy costs and reduce the money going into federal coffers.

The action is significant as it targets the supply of fossil fuels. By contrast, most of Obama’s climate policies thus far have focused on reducing demand for fuels like oil and coal, including carbon limits for power plants and efficiency rules for cars and trucks.

Environmentalists have long push for Obama to target the supply side of the equation more, an effort they call “keep it in the ground.”

Activist groups are advocating for a complete stop to new fossil fuel leases on federal land and offshore, something that’s unlikely. But they nonetheless cheered the Friday announcement.

“With today’s announcement President Obama exerted groundbreaking leadership in the global movement to keep fossil fuels in the ground,” said Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth.

“This is a historic decision that greatly improves the world’s chances of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change and has burnished President Obama’s climate legacy. I applaud him for his leadership.”

Additionally, greens, the Government Accountability Office, Interior’s inspector general, congressional Democrats and others have long complained that coal companies are getting a major bargain on federal land, not just in comparison to private land, but also because of the climate impact of the coal they produce.

The action is the result of a wide-ranging effort Jewell launched in March 2015 to find ways to make energy production on federal land safer and cleaner, including reducing pollutants like greenhouse gases.