In recent weeks, people have been turning out by the hundreds at public hearings demanding reform of the federal coal leasing program. For decades now, coal mining companies have ripped more than 400 million tons of coal from public lands every year. In fact, nearly 40 percent of all coal mined in the United States comes from land owned by the American people, and it's given to coal companies at far below market value. Fortunately, in January the Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, ordered an immediate halt to all new leases for coal mining on federal land (with a few exceptions) pending a review of how, when, and where the government should allow companies to extract coal from land that belongs to all Americans. The next step in that process, now underway, is a series of six public hearings being held across the nation this spring and summer.
President Obama's Administration has acknowledged the sorry truth behind the current state of the coal leasing program. Simply put, it's broken and badly in need of updating. The government's current program for leasing land to coal companies is more than 30 years old and ignores many of the critical risk factors now associated with mining, transporting, and burning coal for electricity.
While it's clear today that burning coal pollutes our air and water and is the single biggest contributor to climate disruption, there are other, hidden costs to subsidizing coal mining on federal lands. Federal underwriting of coal production shorts taxpayers millions of dollars each year on a bad economic bet, slows the transition to a clean energy economy and undercuts opportunities for economic diversification in coal communities. In fact, the Department of the Interior coal leasing program has left money on the table for years, costing taxpayers $30 billion over the last thirty years, and effectively subsidizing mining in the Powder River Basin, a region which is the source of 13 percent of US climate emissions.
The threat to our national treasures -- our parks, forests, and other special places -- is very real. For example, in Utah, the Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is preparing to open more than 3,500 acres of land near Bryce Canyon National Park to coal strip mining. Expanded coal strip mining would harm the region's clean water and air, mar Bryce Canyon's world-famous dark night skies with light, destroy habitats, create noise disruptions. Yet the current coal leasing programs fails to adequately take these threats into consideration during the decision-making process. It also fails to consider the impacts on Utah's vibrant tourism and outdoor recreation economy that generates $12 billion in consumer spending and creates 122,000 direct Utah jobs.
That's why the current set of coal leasing hearings are so critical. This process is an opportunity to make smart choices about the future of U.S. energy policy, and to fix some of the broken policies of the past, by pressing decision makers to protect the health of more families, save taxpayers money, and deepen investments in our clean energy energy future by creating a plan to end much of the federal government's underwriting of coal mining. That's a critical step in protecting the health of our families, our wallets, and our planet.
Across the country we're working hard alongside supporters, members, allies and others to ensure that federal coal leasing reforms benefit communities, workers, and our environment. At the most recent hearing in Knoxville, Tenn., those in support of coal leasing reform made up 90 percent of the people who spoke at the hearing. Folks came in from not just around Tennessee but around the region, including community leaders from Kentucky, Alabama, Virginia and even as far away as Montana to speak in favor of strong reforms to the coal leasing process.
"We are building new power for a bright future in Appalachia and it is working." said Eric Dixon, a Kentuckians For the Commonwealth member and staff member at Appalachian Citizens Law Center.
There's a bright future for folks across the country when we work together to safeguard our national treasures, turn the corner on climate change, keep our air and water clean, and build a sustainable future for our communities.