Pausing to reassess federal coal sales was a wise move by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
INTERIOR Secretary Sally Jewell’s decision to pause and reassess leasing of federal land for coal mining is a smart move with implications for her home state of Washington.
The United States is overdue in updating land-management policies to be sure the public gets the best possible return on resources that it sells to companies, whether they are in the business of mining coal or raising cattle. These deals deserve as much scrutiny and skepticism as tax breaks for tycoons.
It’s also important to reconcile President Obama’s environmental policies and pronouncements. If the nation has decided to take serious steps to reduce carbon emissions and urge other countries to stem global warming, environmental effects of coal’s use should be part of the cost-benefit analysis done before sales of public coal reserves.
This does not mean the end of coal as an energy source. That won’t happen for a long time in the U.S. — where coal still provides around 40 percent of electricity — or overseas, where demand for coal is growing in China and other developing countries.
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Coal proponents have a point that since coal energy will be used for decades to come, perhaps it’s better to have countries use cleaner-burning coal from the U.S., which also holds mines to higher safety and environmental standards.
Even so, that doesn’t justify overly generous sales of public resources. Nor should it preclude Jewell from updating coal policies, assessing royalties and clarifying the environmental effect of leasing public land for mining.
The nuances of “clean” versus “dirty” coal and the reality that billions of people around the world depend on coal for heat, light and economic growth must be part of the policy assessment. This is an opportunity to settle the burning question of whether it’s better or worse to “leave it in the ground.” Will overall global warming increase or decrease if U.S. coal output and exports are restricted?
Any policy changes that result will have a significant effect on the Northwest, where coal burned for power generation is a significant source of the region’s carbon emissions. Although clean hydropower generates most power within Washington, Puget Sound Energy and other private utilities import electricity generated by coal in Montana.
Eliminating regional coal use would dramatically and directly cut the region’s carbon footprint, potentially reducing the need to impose a carbon tax on consumers and businesses.
Washington state is also grappling with proposals to build coal export facilities in Longview and Cherry Point. They would handle coal mined in places like Wyoming and Montana and destined largely for Asia. The value of construction and operating jobs they would create is offset by detrimental effects of coal trains, including pollution, travel delays and reduced capacity of rail infrastructure.
Jewell’s decision creates uncertainty about the future availability of coal from federal lands and its price. Coal from public lands accounts for about 40 percent of the U.S. supply.
Proponents of coal terminals in Washington and regulators evaluating them would be wise to pause until the Interior Department concludes its review of coal policies.
The greatest value of the coal policy reassessment, though, will come from the agency ensuring that the public isn’t being shafted in its resource sales and that the federal government has a more consistent and defensible stance on environmental protection.