The global-warming damage caused by burning coal leased from federal lands under President Obama will eventually cost society tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars—far outweighing any economic benefit of coal leasing to taxpayers, a Greenpeace report concludes.
The leasing program charges companies only about a dollar a ton on average to mine coal, but the pollution from each ton burned is estimated to cost between $22 and $237, Greenpeace said.
The report uses the federal government's method of estimating the social cost of carbon, or SCC. The SCC is a calculation devised by economists to express in today's dollars the price future generations ultimately pay for the damages caused by carbon pollution.
The Federal Bureau of Land Management has already leased 2.2 billion tons of coal during the Obama administration, unlocking 3.9 billion tons of carbon dioxide that will be emitted into the atmosphere as the coal is burned, Greenpeace said. Plans on the drawing board would release billions of tons more.
Multiplying all that coal production by the environmental cost of burning the coal, Greenpeace estimates that coal leases approved under Obama would impose future costs of between $52 billion and $530 billion.
Greenpeace called for "a moratorium and comprehensive review of the federal coal leasing program, including its role in fueling the climate crisis."
In June, a federal judge in Colorado found that the BLM had failed to weigh the social cost of carbon pollution from burning coal when the agency approved a mining expansion there.
The ruling seemed to bear out the fears of the fossil fuel industry and their allies in Congress—that the SCC was going to become a major weapon in what they call the "war on coal."
In the wake of the decision, Peter C. Whitfield, editor of the law firm BakerHostetler's Environmental Law Strategy blog, wrote that "there will be more pressure on federal agencies to calculate the cost of GHG emissions associated with a federal action and more litigation where such an analysis is not performed."
Even though SCC calculations are inherently imprecise, producing cost estimates that fall across a broad range, many environmental advocates believe they should be used to help decide whether the benefits of burning fossil fuels are worth the long-term costs.
Greenpeace's study appears to be the first to apply SCC methods comprehensively to the government' s coal leasing program, which is on course to remain a substantial source of carbon emissions for decades to come.
An earlier study by the Wilderness Society found that in one year, 2009, fossil fuels extracted from federal lands and waters by private leaseholders accounted for nearly a quarter of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Most of that came from coal.
The new study is part of a broad Greenpeace campaign against increasing exports of America's coal, including coal produced on public lands, as inexpensive natural gas and Obama's crackdown on carbon pollution help shrink domestic demand.
"How can a federal program that increases the supply of coal be reconciled with President Obama's climate action plan?" Greenpeace asked.
The full study: