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Powder River Basin: A Chance to Lead on Climate and Public Lands

Americans Demand Climate Action in Washington (Photo: Javier Sierra)

In his inaugural address, President Barack Obama pledged to the American people that he would make our nation a leader in efforts to fix the climate crisis. It's a formidable challenge, but one that absolutely deserves the attention and action of all federal agencies. And that's especially true of those charged with caring for our public lands, which are already being harmed by climate disruption.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages more than 250 million acres of public lands -- mostly in the American West. In addition, the agency also manages the mineral resources of a much wider area. That duty means that BLM is charged with overseeing the extraction of the fossil fuels that are major culprits in disrupting our climate when burned, making the agency well-positioned to act on the president's inaugural pledge.

A place to start now to transition America away from climate-disrupting dirty energy is the Powder River Basin in eastern Montana and Wyoming. This rural landscape, dominated by BLM lands and populated by family ranchers, has become a significant source of coal in recent years, providing upwards of 40 percent of our national supply. A report released this week by the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Powder River Basin contains 25 billion short tons of economically recoverable coal.

Although the market for coal in the United States has been declining, pressure on the BLM to lease coal in the Powder River Basin remains high. Under BLM leasing practices, it's too easy and dirt cheap for big coal companies to lease our public lands, destroy our landscapes to get at the coal, and then profit by selling it overseas. The BLM is effectively aiding companies like Arch Coal and Peabody Energy by off-loading our public lands for such a low price that Big Coal benefits even in a declining market.

The destruction of our public lands isn't the only cost to Americans -- once burned, a single ton of Powder River Basin coal generates more than 3,700 tons of greenhouse gas pollution. Multiply that by either the 25 billion tons of economically recoverable coal or the 162 billion tons of technically recoverable coal identified by USGS in the Powder River Basin, and it becomes clear that federal leasing practices are accelerating and not slowing the devastating consequences of climate disruption. 

But BLM has a chance to position itself as a leader in America's efforts to address climate change. The agency can –- and should -– take into account the extreme harm to our environment, our planet, and the health of the families subjected to breathing polluted air when deciding whether or not to lease coal in the Powder River Basin.  Right now the agency doesn't consider the climate disruption pollution that will result from burning federal coal. 

With a new Interior Department secretary taking office, along with a new BLM director, a tremendous opportunity exists to begin this critical effort. Taking advantage of this opportunity for change should be a priority for these new leaders.

 -- Bill Corcoran, Sierra Club Beyond Coal Western Regional Campaign Director


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