When it comes to coal mining in the United States, environmentalists have a simple goal: End it. For the Obama administration, it’s a little more complicated.
Since taking office nearly three years ago, the administration has restricted coal-mining waste from being dumped into streams and imposed new pollution controls on coal-fired power plants. But on the fundamental question of whether the government should halt federal leasing, the administration’s answer has been: not yet.
Instead, the federal government is analzying the environmental impact of extracting coal from public land, drawing fire from both sides. Environmentalists say such action doesn’t go far enough, while industry officials question why it would pursue this analysis in the absence of a federal law on greenhouse gas emissions.
“On some level, the twin goals of increased fossil fuel production and reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are necessarily in conflict, at least without a national cap on emissions,” said Paul Bledsoe, who was a special assistant at the Interior Department during the Clinton administration. “This fundamental contradiction in current U.S. energy policy is playing out on the Keystone oil pipeline, in our public lands policy and throughout the energy economy.”
Interior Deputy Secretary David J. Hayes said the agency is “committed to evaluating greenhouse gas emissions among the many important factors we analyze when considering whether or not a coal extraction lease sale makes sense for the environment, the economy and America’s energy security.”
Even as Interior has given added scrutiny to leasing and pushed for the development of renewable energy alternatives, Hayes added, it hasn’t sought to shut down coal production altogether.
“Coal is providing close to half the electricity in the United States, and 40 percent of the coal used in that mix comes from the public land — our land,” he said. “It’s an important part of our energy mix. The revenues that come from it are significant.”
Overall U.S. coal production has dipped slightly since 2008, and federal coal leases have fallen more sharply. Coal production totaled 1.17 billion short tons in 2008, according to the Energy Information Agency. It declined to 1.074 billion tons in 2009 and last year reached 1.084 billion. It is expected to be roughly 1.08 billion tons in 2011.
While the economic downturn largely accounts for the decline, according to mining operators and analysts, federal policy has contributed to the fact that the number of tons the government leased each year over the past three years has averaged 272 million. The Bush administration, by contrast, leased an average of 515 million tons annually between 2002 and 2008. But federal royalties are rising, reaching $701 million in fiscal 2011.
The center of gravity for coal production in the United States has shifted over the past few decades for both economic and environmental reasons, moving from central Appalachia to the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana. Central Appalachia now produces just 17 percent of the nation’s coal compared with 70 percent in the 1970s, according to Tom Sanzillo, president of the consulting group T.R. Rose Associates.
The Powder River Basin accounts for 43 percent, more than all of the coal produced east of the Mississippi River.
Part of this shift stems from two centuries of traditional coal mining in the East depleting reserves in central Appalachia.
And the mountaintop-removal practice used in the region has been curtailed on the grounds that resulting “valley fills” undermine local water quality. Final guidance on the practice issued by the EPA in July has come under legal challenge, but in the meantime, operators say, the new policy has stalled surface mining permits in states such as Kentucky and West Virginia.
Bill Bissett, executive director of the Kentucky Coal Association, said operators are concerned about what they’ll do when they’re finished mining on their current permits. In September, the EPA denied 19 surface mining permits in eastern Kentucky; Bissett estimated that translates into nearly 125.5 million short tons of lost coal production and 950 mining jobs over the life of the mines.
Powder River Basin
Increasingly, both the mining industry and environmentalists have focused on the Powder River Basin, where coal extraction has more than doubled over the past two decades. In 1990, the federal government made the decision to “decertify” the area as a coal production region, a move that allows coal companies to identify which tracts of land they’d like to lease rather than having the Bureau of Land Management select them.