Federal Coal Sales Won’t Impact Climate, Trump Administration Says

Published July 22, 2019

A new U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) environmental analysis found allowing federal coal sales would make little difference in the overall amount of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Court Says Consider Climate

In March of 2017, President Donald Trump’s administration lifted a moratorium on coal sales from federal lands previously imposed by the Obama administration.

Several environmental activist groups, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, and the attorneys general of California, New Mexico, New York, and Washington, all Democrats, filed suit to reject the Interior Department’s decision to rescind the Obama administration’s moratorium on coal sales. The plaintiffs argued resuming coal sales would increase the release of greenhouse gases and cause greater harm from purported human-caused climate change.

On April 19 of this year, Federal District Judge Brian Morris in Montana ruled the Trump administration’s decision to resume coal sales was not “a mere policy shift” and therefore the administration should have considered potential damage to the environment from the resumption of coal sales on federal lands.

Morris ruled Trump administration Interior Department officials had wrongly avoided an environmental review of their action, even though the same department under President Obama had conducted no environmental assessment of its action when it imposed the moratorium in January 2016.

“The moratorium provided protections on public lands for more than 14 months,” Morris said in his April 19 decision, and lifting the moratorium was a “major federal action” sufficient to trigger the requirement of a detailed analysis of its environmental impacts.

Morris’s decision was only a partial victory for the plaintiffs. He did not bar future coal sales but only ordered federal attorneys to enter into negotiations with the environmental groups, states, and tribal officials over how to proceed.

BLM: No Climate Effect

Ordered by Morris to consider the climate implications of reopening coal leasing on federal lands, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) completed an environmental analysis and found allowing federal coal sales would have little effect on the U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

After reviewing the applications from companies for coal leases totaling more than 2.5 billion tons, BLM estimated just over five billion tons of greenhouse gases would be produced from burning the fuel for electricity over the next 20 years, the equivalent of just a little over 1 percent of the 2017 amount of greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector.

“The lifting of the coal leasing pause would not change the cumulative levels of [greenhouse gas] emissions resulting from coal leasing,” BLM’s May 22 report concludes.

BLM’s report states nearly 40 percent of the coal burned in the United States comes from federal leases, primarily in Western states such as Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.

During the past decade, companies have mined about four billion tons of coal from federal reserves, in the process contributing $10 billion in federal and state taxes through royalties and other payments.

Unmeasurable Effect on Temperature

The Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change’s recent report, Climate Change Reconsidered II: Fossil Fuels, shows a warmer climate has produced net benefits to human health and welfare, as has the use of coal as an energy source, says James Taylor, a senior fellow for environment and energy policy at The Heartland Institute, which publishes Environment & Climate News.

“The Earth continues to warm at a very modest pace, about half or less of what the UN climate models predicted,” said Taylor. “The warming that has occurred has produced substantial net benefits, including greater crop production, lower human mortality, and an overall greening of the Earth.

“Even if we were to ignore such facts, the impact of U.S. coal emissions on global temperatures is almost too small to be measured,” Taylor said.

Taylor says replacements for coal are more expensive and produce lower revenues for the federal government.

“The Obama administration shackled the American economy and household living standards by restricting coal development—which provided affordable power and paid substantial fees and royalties to taxpayers—on federal lands while encouraging wind and solar production instead,” Taylor said. “Wind and solar power are more expensive forms of power and do not provide the fee and royalty benefits that coal, oil, and natural gas development provide.” 

Carbon Dioxide Environmental Benefits

President Trump was right to rescind Obama’s coal restrictions because carbon dioxide is beneficial to the environment, says Fred Palmer, a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change.

“Both domestically and abroad, there is a massive amount of nonfederal coal that will be used and is absolutely capable of meeting demand for any additional supply wherever located,” said Palmer. “Additional emissions from combustion of U.S. or international coal, oil, and natural gas will have minimal impact on climate no matter what one thinks of CO2, given well-known laws of physics show each incremental addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere has an increasingly diminishing impact from a warming standpoint.

“Finally, carbon dioxide is a benign gas required for life on earth—it’s good, not bad,” said Palmer. “More carbon dioxide in the air means an accelerated greening of planet Earth, more robust food production, a more robust biosphere and therefore animal life, an improved natural environment, and a better human environment for all of us.”

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]writes from Dallas, Texas.


“Lifting the Pause on the Issuance of New Federal Coal Leases for Thermal (Steam) Coal: Environmental Assessment,” Bureau of Land Management, U.S Department of Interior, May 22, 2019: https://heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/lifting-the-pause-on-the-issuance-of-new-federal-coal-leases-for-thermal-steam-coal-environmental-assessment