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Federal coal's day in court

Federal coal's day in court
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An obscure decision by a federal judge has prompted an important question for policymakers mulling energy policy: Does federal coal mined in the West have a bigger impact on global climate change than it does on the nation’s economy?

The question isn’t academic after a federal district court in Montana last month ruled that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has failed to properly consider downstream effects of greenhouse gas emissions from federal coal used in electricity generation.

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Activists who brought the complaint were understandably pleased after the judge ordered BLM to revise its land use plans in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Activists hope that the revised plans will rule out coal mining in Wyoming and Montana, the richest coal basin in the nation.

 

Here is where caution is needed. This ruling was about a bureaucratic process, not the outcome of the process. Specifically, the court found that the BLM must conduct a more thorough assessment of the downstream impacts of coal production — impacts that potentially contribute to global warming. BLM erred by considering planning alternatives with identical volumes of coal, ignoring alternatives that would offer less acreage for fossil energy production or possibly keep coal and gas in the ground.

But the court’s decision should not be construed to suggest a different coal-leasing policy is warranted. NEPA requires a specific procedure, not a specific decision. It does not dictate the outcome, only the means to arrive at one. In this case, it was the BLM’s process that was found wanting, not its decision to plan for future coal production.

In fact, the court specifically rejected the activists’ demand that BLM use the “social cost of carbon” to gauge the potential impact of federal coal on climate change. The social cost of carbon is a controversial methodology widely faulted for exaggerating the impact of greenhouse gas emissions.

Nor did the court agree with activists’ demands to vacate BLM’s resource management plans. Instead it took a more moderate course, directing the parties to confer on an acceptable procedure for properly weighing carbon emissions. Finally, the judges rejected demands to enjoin the agency from further leasing activities in the BLM planning areas but instead followed precedent in allowing the agency — and in this case the various parties — to decide how best to comply with NEPA’s procedural requirements.

We hope common sense will guide deliberations over the impact of federal coal on global climate change. Stakeholders might start with a realistic recognition of any environmental effect from the 334 million tons of coal mined in the two-state Powder River Basin, a small fraction of global fossil energy production and use. Its impact on global warming should be correspondingly minor, if possible to measure at all. Requiring BLM to conduct a more precise NEPA analysis won’t make this small impact any larger.

By contrast, the economic consequences of reducing the federal coal program could be significant. In the past decade, coal lease sales have provided over $10 billion in revenue, according to Department of Interior data, much of it vitally important for helping local communities finance a variety of social services, from health care to highways.

Federal coal also ensures an important measure of reliability to the nation’s electricity grid. As the largest source of U.S. coal, it provides half of the total U.S. coal used for electricity generation. Our organization's calculations show that federal coal supports an estimated 31,000 jobs, from mines to railroads, power plants and equipment suppliers — jobs that pay an average annual wage of $86,000.

Preserving these advantages explains why U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeHUD official quits amid Interior Department watchdog controversy Overnight Energy: Outdoor retailer Patagonia makes first Senate endorsements | EPA withdraws Obama uranium milling rule | NASA chief sees 'no reason' to dismiss UN climate report Interior Department sued over withholding details on trophy permits, endangered species MORE last year lifted the moratorium on federal coal lease sales imposed by the past administration.

The district court did not uphold the plaintiffs’ objective. It’s now time for stakeholders to uphold common sense and find reasonable ways for using a valuable national resource.

Katie Sweeney is senior vice president and general counsel for the National Mining Association.