Obama takes action against coal extraction—but it’s not enough

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by Vesta Davis

About 40% of coal in the United States is mined on public land. Last Friday, President Obama and his administration stopped all new leases for coal companies to mine on public lands. The goal is to verify the coal industries’ efficiency with taxpayer’s money and coal’s impacts on climate change.  This review could lead to higher costs for coal companies and thus an overall slowdown in extraction.

This means that coal companies can still mine active properties, but they can’t create new mines on public land until there has been an extensive overhaul of the coal program. The current reserves under lease are expected to last at least another 20 years, according to Luke Popovich—spokesperson for the National Mining Association.

Still, this is a big setback for the coal industry. Not only is it stopping production, but it will also push away long-term investors. It’s bad timing too since 2015 was the worst financial year in coal history due to the increasing popularity of natural gas.

Obama’s action to hold the leases will continue to fuel the fire Republicans have against the president and his regulations against coal—regulations that have been called the “war on coal.” It will also perpetuate the debate over control of public lands, and probably the never-ending debate about federal vs. state government authority in public issues.

In his final State of Union address, Obama proclaimed: “I’m going to 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.”

This is one of the many steps Obama has taken to use his executive order to combat climate change while he still can. Coal is the fossil fuel most responsible for climate change—and because of this, Obama’s administration has proposed a “production fee” for coal. Economists estimate that this cost would be around $40 per ton of carbon dioxide produced. That fee would completely shut down the industry on federal lands—according to Alan Krupnick, an environmental economist at Resources for the Future. But, even a charge of a few dollars would have an impact on the industries.

In 2014, the leasing rate for each acre of public land was $3. This brought the federal government’s total revenue to about $1.2 billion from leases, royalties, and other fees for coal mining on public land. However, in a 2013 report, the Government Accountability Office showed that the rates might not be accurately representing market values. Dan Bucks, a former director of Montana Department of Revenue, says that leases are “notoriously known for being paid below market value.”

The current system is not open, public, nor competitive. If it were a competitive process, then it would get up to market prices. And thus it would be fair to the taxpayer.

But who is really suffering here? Yes, taxpayers shouldn’t be cheated out of their hard-earned money and coal corporations and their CEOs mustn’t cut corners. They must be held accountable. That is absolute. But in the end, where is the representation of the frontline communities who work tirelessly in the mines every day, suffer from severe health issues, and have been economically tied to the coal industry for generations? The environmental justice component of this situation is undeniable—and yet so often overlooked.

Climate change disproportionally affects low-income communities of color, and when assessing pollution and public health, it often goes 1 of 2 ways:

1. Low-income families are forced into residential areas that are near toxic power plants or waste sites because the property values are significantly lower than average prices.

2. Governments and large corporations purposefully build these toxic sites within low-income residential communities because the land values are low and they don’t believe locals will be able to recognize their rights—and even if they do—have the resources to act on them.

Fossil fuels are the number one cause of global warming and climate change. And as stated above, the leading fossil fuel in that race is coal.

The extraction and burning of coal is detrimental to the physical environment, the sustainability of natural ecosystems, and most of all, to the health and well-being of the human communities that reside within extraction areas. More than a dozen independent researchers and universities have concluded that mountain top removal (MTR) coal mining leads to substantially higher rates of birth defects, cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases among those living near the extraction sites. In 2014, researchers showed that toxic dust particles from MTR sites cause the growth of cancer cells in human lungs. This was the first established direct link, rather than just a correlation.

It has been reported that 68% of African-Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant—a distance that is known as the “zone of maximum exposure” and causes the severe health issues of heart and birth defects. Further, people of color breathe in nearly 40% more polluted air than whites.

It has been 30 years since the last comprehensive review of the coal mining program, and according to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, the US government has an “obligation” to the American public to make sure the program is fair to taxpayers and “takes into account its impact on climate change.” But how about also making explicit efforts to represent and account for the frontline communities that experience the severe health impacts of coal extraction and burning every day?

If the federal government can’t do this, then hopefully CHEJ and other grassroots organizing organizations can strengthen and escalate efforts until each frontline community can have a voice of their own.

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