The United States Department of the Interior has announced a temporary suspension of coal leasing on public lands pending a comprehensive review of the federal coal program by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).  Public lands currently account for approximately 40% of all coal production in the United States.

During the temporary suspension, BLM will not process or approve new coal lease applications.  The suspension does not halt ongoing production activities under existing leases or prohibit the approval of new coal leases on Native American tribal land.

The temporary suspension will impact a number of pending lease applications, and it is already receiving considerable attention in the media and in the Congress.  But the BLM’s comprehensive review of the federal coal program is likely to be even more important in the long run.

The comprehensive review will take the form of a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) prepared under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a document that will be available for review and comment by interested parties.  Among other things, the Programmatic EIS is likely to address the following questions:

  • How, where, and when should public lands be leased for resource extraction activities?
  • To what extent should coal produced on public land be used to support American energy needs?
  • Should rents and royalty rates charged by the United States account for the “social cost” of carbon?
  • To what extent should government leasing decisions account for the potential environmental impacts of resource exports?
  • How should climate change impacts be addressed in the federal leasing and environmental impact assessment process?

The importance of these questions (and the answers that will emerge in the EIS) extends far beyond federal coal leasing.  All stakeholders with an interest in federal land management and energy policy should take careful note of — and consider directly participating in — the BLM’s Programmatic EIS process.