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Obama Steers Climate Battle ‘Upstream’ With New Coal Policy

Restrictions on coal development highlight the growing fight over keeping fossil fuels in the ground.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has hal­ted new leases for coal min­ing on fed­er­al lands as it launches a multi-year re­view of the pro­gram, which crit­ics have long called a tax­pay­er ripoff and a threat to the cli­mate.

The or­der an­nounced Fri­day by the In­teri­or De­part­ment—which man­ages fed­er­al lands that ac­count for 40 per­cent of U.S. coal pro­duc­tion—is part of an evol­u­tion of White House policy on cli­mate change.

With its de­cision to re­ject the Key­stone pipeline and now the coal policy, the White House is in­creas­ingly look­ing dir­ectly at the source of fossil fuels, not just the way they’re con­sumed (or avoided) in the eco­nomy.

Obama’s biggest steps on cli­mate policy have been much tough­er mileage rules for cars and trucks; stronger en­ergy ef­fi­ciency stand­ards for ap­pli­ances; loan guar­an­tees and oth­er pro­grams to boost de­ploy­ment of green power sources; and, most re­cently, sweep­ing EPA man­dates to stem car­bon pol­lu­tion from power plants.

Those policies are centered on us­ing less en­ergy in trans­port­a­tion and build­ings, and hasten­ing the trans­form­a­tion of the coun­try’s elec­tri­city sys­tem away from coal. In oth­er words, tack­ling cli­mate change by chan­ging the de­mand for en­ergy, and fa­vor­ing clean­er sources than coal and oil.

But en­vir­on­ment­al­ists in re­cent years have stepped up their or­gan­iz­ing around an­oth­er idea: Pre­vent­ing ex­trac­tion of coal, oil and gas dir­ectly, that is, tar­get­ing the “up­stream” part of en­ergy de­vel­op­ment too.

They’re an­im­ated by ana­lyses that have con­cluded that huge amounts of fossil fuels glob­ally must re­main un­tapped in or­der to pre­vent the most dan­ger­ous levels of glob­al warm­ing.

A widely cir­cu­lated pa­per in the journ­al Nature last year es­tim­ates that world­wide, a third of all oil re­serves, half of nat­ur­al gas re­serves, and 80 per­cent of coal re­serves should re­main un­burned in the com­ing dec­ades in or­der to hold the rise in glob­al tem­per­at­ures to 2 °C above pre-in­dus­tri­al levels.

In re­cent months Obama has ap­peared in­creas­ingly will­ing to em­brace the en­vir­on­ment­al move­ment’s “keep it in the ground” man­tra, at least when it comes to the most car­bon-heavy fossil fuels.

Here’s what Obama said last fall when re­ject­ing the Key­stone XL pipeline, the cul­min­a­tion of a battle over act­iv­ists’ ef­forts to sty­mie growth of car­bon-in­tens­ive oil sands pro­duc­tion in Canada.

“Ul­ti­mately, if we’re go­ing to pre­vent large parts of this Earth from be­com­ing not only in­hos­pit­able but un­in­hab­it­able in our life­times, we’re go­ing to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and re­lease more dan­ger­ous pol­lu­tion in­to the sky,” Obama said at the time.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion didn’t throw that kind of rhet­or­ic­al red meat to act­iv­ists on Fri­day as it an­nounced that it will stop selling or pro­cessing new coal leases dur­ing the multi-year re­view of the man­age­ment of coal on fed­er­al lands. 

Of­fi­cials em­phas­ized that the new policy will not hinder coal pro­duc­tion any time soon, not­ing that com­pan­ies have already leased enough coal re­serves to sus­tain cur­rent pro­duc­tion levels from fed­er­al lands for 20 years.

“Even as our na­tion trans­itions to a clean en­ergy fu­ture, coal will con­tin­ue to be an im­port­ant do­mest­ic en­ergy source in the years ahead,” In­teri­or Sec­ret­ary Sally Jew­ell told re­port­ers Fri­day.

But it’s non­ethe­less an overt move by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion to con­sider the cli­mat­ic ef­fects of pro­du­cing the huge de­pos­its of fossil fuels that un­der­lie fed­er­al lands. The in-depth re­view of the coal pro­gram, which In­teri­or said will be the first in 30 years, will con­sider “how best to as­sess the cli­mate im­pacts” of con­tin­ued fed­er­al coal pro­duc­tion and use of that re­source.

It’s also ex­plor­ing sev­er­al oth­er as­pects of the pro­gram, such as the re­turn to tax­pay­ers un­der a sys­tem that al­lows pro­du­cers to pay roy­al­ties as low as 2 per­cent in some cases; how to make it more com­pet­it­ive; and de­cisions around when and where to lease.

The ex­tent to which Obama’s will­ing to em­brace “keep it in the ground” also an­im­ates a battle over off­shore drilling that’s un­fold­ing as his pres­id­ency nears its end.

In­teri­or is in the midst of craft­ing the plan to guide off­shore oil-and-gas lease sales held between 2017 and 2022. A draft of the plan would auc­tion drilling rights in Arc­tic wa­ters of Alaska’s north­ern coast, as well as lease sales for wa­ters off the coasts of mid- and south-At­lantic states.

But en­vir­on­ment­al­ists are press­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion to jet­tis­on any leas­ing in the Arc­tic and aban­don plans to open the At­lantic Coast.

Already, Obama has can­celed plans to sell oil-and-gas drilling leases in Arc­tic wa­ters in 2016 and 2017 and re­jec­ted ef­forts by com­pan­ies to ex­tend the life of ex­ist­ing Arc­tic leases, but that came after Roy­al Dutch Shell had already thrown in the tow­el on ef­forts to search for oil there.

The latest move on coal is in­flam­ing the on­go­ing polit­ic­al fight with Re­pub­lic­ans over cli­mate and en­ergy policy.

“The pres­id­ent’s policies have already rav­aged coal coun­try, des­troy­ing jobs and people’s way of life, and this will in­crease that suf­fer­ing,” House Speak­er Paul Ry­an said in re­sponse to the new coal policy.

GOP Sen. John Bar­rasso of Wyom­ing said the move “ef­fect­ively hands a pink slip to the thou­sands of people in Wyom­ing and across the West em­ployed in coal pro­duc­tion.” The Powder River Basin re­gion of Wyom­ing and Montana ac­counts for over 85 per­cent of the coal pro­duc­tion from fed­er­al lands, ac­cord­ing to In­teri­or.

En­vir­on­ment­al­ists cheered the move. Rhea Suh, a former seni­or In­teri­or De­part­ment of­fi­cial who is now pres­id­ent of the Nat­ur­al Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil, praised the ad­min­is­tra­tion for “Align­ing the use of Amer­ica’s pub­lic lands with our ob­lig­a­tion to pro­tect fu­ture gen­er­a­tions from the dangers of cli­mate change.”

And some en­vir­on­ment­al­ists saw ex­pli­cit White House back­ing for their “keep it in the ground” ral­ly­ing cry, even as they pressed for more ag­gress­ive meas­ures.

“It’s a pos­it­ive step for­ward to see this ‘keep it in the ground’ prin­ciple be­ing ap­plied to more gov­ern­ment de­cision mak­ing, but the clock is tick­ing. The ad­min­is­tra­tion needs to move quickly to­wards end­ing all new coal, oil and gas de­vel­op­ment on pub­lic lands and fin­an­cing a just trans­ition to­wards 100% re­new­able en­ergy,” said Jason Kow­al­ski, policy dir­ect­or with the group

The re­view and freeze on new coal min­ing leases is pro­jec­ted to last three years, though In­teri­or ex­pects to re­lease an in­ter­im re­port by the end of Obama’s pres­id­ency. But wheth­er the ef­fort out­lives Obama’s ten­ure re­mains to be seen.

GOP White House can­did­ates have at­tacked Obama’s cli­mate ini­ti­at­ives and vowed to un­wind policies they they con­tend are hos­tile to fossil fuels.

On the Demo­crat­ic side, Bernie Sanders is already all-in on “keep it in the ground”—he is pro­mot­ing le­gis­la­tion that would bar any new oil, gas and coal leases on fed­er­al lands and wa­ters.

Hil­lary Clin­ton has come out against Arc­tic off­shore leas­ing and re­cently said she’s “skep­tic­al” about drilling off the south­east At­lantic coast. Her cam­paign web­site says tax­pay­ers must get a “fair deal” from fossil fuel de­vel­op­ment on pub­lic lands and that areas that are too sens­it­ive woud be off-lim­its. But aides did not re­spond to an in­quiry about wheth­er she would con­tin­ue the newly an­nounced freeze on new coal leases on fed­er­al lands.

(Image via ArturNyk/