Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is the keynote speaker for the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual conference today, where she will take questions from the audience after speaking “about Interior’s efforts to address climate change and to strengthen the nation’s economy through healthy lands, water, and wildlife.”
And while we can expect to hear about the Interior Department’s efforts to promote renewable energy development and ensure our public lands have the best chance to adapt to the impacts of climate change, it remains to be seen if Secretary Jewell will address the elephant in the room – how the Interior Department’s coal leasing program is unlocking huge quantities of carbon pollution, fueling climate change and undermining President Obama’s efforts to reduce emissions.
The scale of the coal leasing program is enormous – as the source of 40% of the coal extracted in the United States, decisions about how this publicly owned coal is managed have major impacts on coal markets and carbon pollution. During the Obama administration, the Interior Department has leased 2.2 billion tons of coal, unlocking 3.9 billion metric tons of carbon pollution – more than was emitted in the entire European Union in 2012. Our report, “Leasing Coal, Fueling Climate Change,” has many more details, and asks a pretty simple question of Secretary Jewell and the rest of the Obama administration: how can a federal program that increases the supply of coal be reconciled with President Obama’s Climate Action Plan?
So far, Secretary Jewell has failed to address the major flaws with the coal leasing program that have been identified by two government reports, taxpayer advocates, environmental groups, and communities impacted by coal mining and export proposals. She has also been reluctant to publicly address the coal leasing program – when one blogger asked her about the program after a Congressional hearing, she replied with a curt “I’m not gonna do it this time.” When environmental journalist Ashley Ahearn asked about the coal leasing program on a snowshoe trip with Secretary Jewell to the melting glaciers of Mount Rainier, she got a vague response about how Interior is also doing some conservation work – you can see the exact exchange at this post, Secretary Jewell highlights Pacific Northwest climate impacts, but dodges questions about coal leasing.
Ahearn and others in the Pacific Northwest have followed the federal coal leasing program because the coal industry is aiming to export this publicly owned coal from Montana and Wyoming to Asia through proposed export terminals in Oregon and Washington. Those proposals have faced broad opposition from public officials, health groups, tribes, faith leaders, environmental groups, and many others throughout the region, and tens of thousands of people around the United States have petitioned Secretary Jewell to end the coal leasing program. But the coal industry is also aiming to expand coal export terminals on the Gulf Coast, and is facing resistance and lawsuits here in Louisiana as well. Pollution from these coal export terminals impact the environment and neighboring communities; just this week, Mark Schleifstein reported that the New Orleans Times-Picayune and Gulf Restoration Network found coal and petcoke debris polluting the wetlands that are the focus of a major coastal restoration project. And beyond the local pollution, coal exports encourage coal consumption abroad, contributing to climate change and the threat it presents to New Orleans and so many other communities.
We’ll be watching Secretary Jewell’s speech to see if she has anything to say about the coal leasing program, and whether she will pursue serious reforms to bring it in line with the administration’s efforts to address climate change. Her speech will be livestreamed here, scheduled for 4:15pm Eastern Time, 1:15pm Pacific.