President Barack Obama’s War on Coal ramped up another notch last month as the administration announced a three-year freeze on all new coal leases on federal lands. The decision came just three days after the State of the Union address, where Obama said he would “push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet.”
Roughly 40 percent of all coal production in the United States comes from federal lands. The vast majority of that mining occurs in Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and New Mexico. These states, where the federal government is the predominant or majority landholder, are largely dependent on the coal industry to produce jobs, generate tax revenue, and supply energy.
The Wyoming coal industry employs around 23,000 people, accounting for a good chunk of this rural state’s workforce. Federal coal royalties provide the state of Montana around $45 million in revenue every two years, which goes to fund schools, fire departments, roads, and other government services. Utah looks to coal to supply almost 80 percent of its electricity.
Understanding the profound effect the coal industry has on Western states, why would the Obama administration cut off their lifeblood? Its answer: to “re-evaluate” the federal coal program.
Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell stressed in a press release that this move “is not a pause on coal production” entirely but will give the government time to look at the effects that federal land coal extraction has on taxpayers and the environment. “We haven’t undertaken a comprehensive review of the program in more than 30 years,” Jewell said. “We have an obligation to current and future generations to ensure the federal coal program delivers a fair return to American taxpayers and takes into account its impacts on climate change.”
Perhaps the federal coal program does need to be re-evaluated. However, handcuffing an industry so integral to Western communities is not the way to go about it.
If the Obama administration were truly concerned about the return the coal industry provides Western taxpayers, it would turn to less extreme and damaging methods of study – such as looking up historical records and researching how coal royalties are disseminated throughout Western states’ economies.
Instead, the administration is proposing to suffocate our communities just to see what happens. Its chosen method of study is like grabbing a goldfish out of an aquarium and leaving it on the counter, gasping to breathe, while you clean the tank. While your intent is to help the fish in the long term, it avails nothing if the fish’s gills dry up and it dies from a lack of oxygen.
The Obama administration is far more interested in its obsession with climate change than in helping Western communities. This proposed study is a ruse designed to draw attention away from the catastrophic effects this policy will have and redirect it toward convincing the public that the federal government is “here to help.”
Responsible and principled steps are needed to reduce pollution. However, blocking the approval of new coal leases is not the way to go about this. It would leave Western states gasping like fish out of water.