During his State of the Union address, Barack Obama alluded, not for the first time during his presidency, to John Muir’s old camping buddy, Theodore Roosevelt, whom he clearly admires. But the president also paid tribute to T.R. in another way: by following the admonition to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Here are the words the president spoke: “I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet.”
Sounds sensible, right? Sitting right behind the president, House Speaker Paul Ryan didn’t even flinch, although I think I saw him squeeze his eyes shut like someone in Star Wars who just felt a disturbance in the Dark Side of the Force.
Today the president followed through on those sensible words in a big way, with Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell’s announcement that the U.S. would stop issuing new coal leases on public lands while it conducts the first major review of the country’s coal-leasing program since Barack Obama was a freshman in college. You could say it’s about time.
This announcement is important for many reasons. Start with the fact that the coal industry has been robbing taxpayers blind for decades by paying next to nothing for the coal they take from our lands (and exploiting loopholes to avoid even that pittance). The phrase that comes to mind is “held up without a gun.”
You could say that our current coal-leasing system is broken and dysfunctional, but it’s actually been doing an excellent job of polluting our environment, harming our health, and disrupting our climate — while making us pay for the privilege. The sooner this stops, the better. Let’s hope this review leads to the permanent end of business-as-usual for a program that has devastated thousands of acres of public lands.
More broadly, the announcement signals that, even with a successful Paris climate summit behind him, President Obama has no intention of declaring “mission accomplished.” Coal remains the world’s biggest source of carbon pollution. The idea that we should permit corporations to mine, sell, and burn coal taken from our public lands with no accountability for the consequences? That never made sense. Now that virtually the entire world has recognized we must leave dirty fuels in the ground, our current federal coal-leasing program looks downright insane. With today’s action, the U.S. is once again asserting international climate leadership. For that, both the president and Interior Secretary Jewell deserve tremendous kudos — and the thanks of anyone who cares about public lands, clean air, or climate action.
Dramatic and significant as today’s announcement is, though, it won’t change everything overnight. Current coal leases aren’t being canceled, and the government reports a 20-year production supply from those leases. This announcement will not shut down existing mines, nor will it put people out of work. But it does confirm something we already knew: Coal is a shrinking part of how we generate electricity, and we will rely on coal less and less as clean, renewable energy comes online.
As we leave coal behind, though, we must make sure we don’t also abandon the thousands of Americans who still rely on the coal industry from Appalachia to Montana. They deserve a just transition to the clean energy economy. In fact, we need them to help build the 100 percent clean energy future. Already, the U.S. solar installation sector alone employs 77 percent more people than the coal-mining industry.
We can keep dirty coal in the ground and protect our public lands from mining and generate electricity with clean energy and give people better jobs. Thanks to today’s announcement, we’re that much closer to making it happen.