NewsJuly 27, 2016

Scientists Urge Obama to End Federal Coal Leasing

By Bobby Magill

Follow @bobbymagill

Citing coal’s effect on climate change, a group of more than 65 prominent scientists is urging the Obama administration to end coal leasing on federal public lands by making permanent a moratorium the government placed on leasing in January.

In a letter sent to the administration Wednesday, the scientists said that unless coal mining is stopped permanently, the U.S. cannot meet its obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement, and the goal to keep global warming from exceeding 2°C (3.6°F) may be impossible.

A coal mine in Wyoming's Powder River Basin.
Credit: Kimon Berlin/flickr


Using coal to generate electricity is the leading source of carbon dioxide emissions driving climate change globally. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by using more natural gas and renewables is widely seen as a primary way to meet international climate goals.

The scientists include James Hansen, former director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at NASA; Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist at MIT; Duke University climate scientist Drew Shindell; and Princeton University geosciences professor Michael Oppenheimer.

Coal mining on federal land, mainly in the West, represents about 41 percent of total U.S. coal production. The Obama administration has placed a three-year moratorium on coal leasing on public lands while the federal government conducts a review meant to bring the leasing program in line with U.S. climate policy.

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A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Interior said the agency is evaluating potential reforms to the program.

Preventing global warming from exceeding 2°C requires 95 percent of all U.S. coal to remain in the ground, the scientists wrote.

“A rapid end to federal coal extraction would send an important signal internationally and domestically to markets, utilities, investors and other nations that the United States is committed to upholding its climate obligation to limit temperature rise to well below 2°C,” they wrote.

“We should stop coal leasing on public lands as part of a broader effort to stop burning coal at all in order to save the American people from the disastrous damages that causes,” Shindell said.

Shindell said it was understandable that the U.S. used coal as its primary source of electricity in the past because the costs of burning coal were not yet known and there were no good alternatives. Today, the consequences of using coal are clear, and the U.S. should focus on developing renewables instead, he said.

Editor’s note: Michael Oppenheimer is vice chair of the Climate Central board of directors.

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