U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, in a one-two Trump administration bid to boost America’s beleaguered coal industry, has lifted the Obama administration’s moratorium on new coal-mining leases on federal land.
“It is certainly a signal that the war on coal is over,” Zinke, a former Montana congressman, said during a Wednesday telephone briefing for journalists.
The Interior Secretary’s action came a day after President Trump used an executive order to repeal the Clean Power Plan, an Obama initiative to make America’s power plants reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that cause climate change.
But Zinke did not predict a comeback for coal.
“You know, we’ll see,” he said.
“Energy costs in the natural gas sector have gone down,” he said, acknowledging a switch to gas that has forced major coal producers into bankruptcy. Zinke added that market forces will determine the nation’s energy direction: “We’re not in the business of picking and choosing winners.”
“I would say there has not been a rush in the past few years for coal leases” on federal land, Zinke said.
Zinke need only look to his native state, and the Pacific Northwest, for supporting evidence. Washington is phasing out its only coal plant, at Centralia. Oregon’s only coal plant will permanently shut its doors before the end of President Trump’s term.
Puget Sound Energy is on a path to shut two dirty, 1975-vintage coal plants, Colstrip 1 and 2, in Montana. Montana’s legislature is considering putting out taxpayer dollars to keep two other units, Colstrip 3 and 4, on life support.
A half-dozen coal plant shutdowns have been announced since President Trump was elected. Forty are projected to close during his term. Trump pledged last year that he would revive the coal industry.
The moratorium on new leases was implemented early in 2016 by then-U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, in part so the Interior Department could review how much the federal government is subsidizing leasees.
The review is ended. “We feel strongly that the current process on reviewing coal is appropriate,” Zinke said Wednesday.
“Rather than doing the social cost of carbon, you have to look at the social cost of not having a job, too,” he argued. “All of us want clean air and clean water. And we’re going to make sure we ensure that.”
Zinke drew an immediate rebuke from Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who wants a review of whether taxpayers ar subsidizing Big Coal.
“Coal companies have been getting their product off public lands on the cheap for decades,” said Cantwell. “It has been over 30 years since their leasing rules and royalties were updated. The last administration tried to fix this to get taxpayers a fair deal. Secretary Zinke just cancelled that.”
Zinke ranged a bit afield in his presser. He described himself as a Theodore Roosevelt admirer and a “Theodore Roosevelt Republican.” The new Interior Secretary extolled “sound science” but did not mention climate science.
He discussed the difficulties of building the Trump border wall along the Rio Grande River, where the U.S.-Mexico border runs down the middle of the river.
“Without a border, a country can’t exist,” Zinke said.
Zinke was jovial with some reporters he knew. But he did did recognize or know about High Country News, a Colorado-based newspaper and website that has reported Western environmental, resource and social news for more than 50 years.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management — known to critics as the “Bureau of Livestock and Mining” — has long played a major role in coal leasing throughout the West. Public land accounts 40 percent of America’s coal production.
BLM lands include the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming, a supplier of coal to the Colstrip plants … and of the coal that industry and railroads have wanted to export from Northwest ports to China.
Zinke noted that China is still building new coal fired power plants and that it is “better to burn cleaner, low-sulfur coal.”
The Interior Secretary came in for sharp criticism from the conservation and clean energy community.
“No one voted to pollute our public lands, air or drinking water in the last election, yet the Trump administration is doing the bidding of powerful polluters as nearly its first order of business,” Jenny Harbine, an attorney for Earthjustice, said in a statement.
“Our legal system remains an important backstop against the abuses of power we’ve witnessed over the course of the past two months. That’s why we’re going to court to defend our public lands, clean air and water, and a healthier climate for all.”