Groups Sue BLM Over Coal Leases

(3Bl Media/Justmeans) - The Department of Interior is a quiet sector of the government, that we don’t hear too much about, and I have a feeling they like it that way. As guardians of the vast natural resources situated on and in America’s public lands and waters, they have come to develop an unusual and perhaps and unusually friendly relationship with those businesses that exploit those resources. We heard, for example, about the Minerals Management Service (now part of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement) and their less than exemplary behavior around the time of the BP Gulf oil spill, which they were supposedly keeping an eye on, becoming for a time the poster child for the word lax.

Another bureau that tries to keep a low profile is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This bureau, oversees, among other things, the vast reserves of coal situated on western lands. The bureau received attention this past summer, when it came to light that the coal being mined on 570 million acres of leased Federal land, which represents a full 40% of all the coal produced in this country, was being made available to the coal mining companies at prices well below market value. Not only does this distort the energy marketplace in favor of coal, but it also deprives US taxpayers of substantial royalties that are owed to the government by the coal companies based on the agreed value of the coal. The companies do not include the substantial markups they receive when selling the coal overseas in their reporting.

Considering the efforts that the Obama administration is making to reduce carbon emissions, despite resistance among Republicans, who talk about his “war on coal,” it is surprising that these actions by a Federal agency, that are contributing mightily to carbon pollution, has escaped notice.

 A number of environmental groups including Friends of the Earth (FOE), Western Organization of Resource Councils, and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, have taken it upon themselves to remedy that situation, bringing the issue to the administration’s attention by filing a lawsuit against BLM.

The suit argues that the coal-leasing program, as it is called, is operating without consideration of the environmental impacts of coal burning.

Dave Stewart, a vice president at the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, which is funding the lawsuit, said, “The BLM seems like a rogue agency that the administration has not been able to get its arms around to make sure it’s obeying the law, and to address the dissonance of BLM activity and other policies and priorities of the administration.”

A report by Sightline Institute, called Unfair Market Value, underscores the financial irregularities associated with the program, sharing tales of countless “sweetheart deals” given to companies who sell this coal in Asia for huge profits, courtesy of American taxpayers who are not getting their fair share of royalties.

Another report, issued by Greenpeace, underscores the environmental damage associated with the program. This includes some 3.9 billion metric tons of CO2 emitted since Obama took office. To put that in perspective, that’s almost half a percent of the estimated total carbon we can safely emit this century if we want to keep the temperature rise below two degrees Celsius.

The BLM has not conducted an environmental review of the program since 1979. The amount the lessees pay the government for the coal, about one dollar per ton, is a tiny fraction of the damage inflicted by the coal, which has been estimated at anywhere between $22 and $237 per ton.

The charter of the government is to balance the interests of business with that of people and the environment. Specially, the BLM legal mandate reads, “To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of America’s public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.”

The lawsuit is questioning whether BLM has been fulfilling that mandate in their coal-leasing program. It is requesting a moratorium on further coal leasing until a new environmental impact statement (EIS) can be completed.

In short, the lawsuit will be asking the president to do what he’s already said he wants to do. If he contests the lawsuit, he will be contradicting himself. Still, politics makes people do strange things.

Even the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has said that BLM’s lease program rules were out of date and that the agency was not valuing the leases correctly.

Of course, coal companies that are already being squeezed by new EPA rules on power plant emissions, will scream bloody murder if they are suddenly asked to pay a fair price for their coal. But then again, if coal were truly priced fairly based on its full environmental impact, we would have stopped burning it a long time ago.

Image credit: Harry Byrne: Flickr Creative Commons