Opinion Columns & Blogs

Ethics of energy in the federal coal review

Religious leaders across the country are saying no to coal. Here in the Northwest, we have stood in solidarity with Native American tribes and local citizens in opposition to dirty and dangerous coal trains rumbling through our communities and know that we can do better. That leads us to the source of the coal in the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming.

For the first time since 1986, the Department of Interior will undertake a careful review of the federal coal program. This is good for American families. Over the past several decades, they have paid the price for burning dirty coal with impacts on health, climate, economy – and as it turns out, our tax dollars.

Nearly half of the nation’s coal extraction comes from the Powder River Basin, the source of 13 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions. Over 80 percent of Powder River Basin coal sits on federal land, which means any revenue stemming from its leasing belongs to the US taxpayer. In recent years, several investigations have found that coal companies are exploiting loopholes and taking advantage of subsidies which artificially drive down the cost of coal while shortchanging taxpayers out of billions of dollars. In short, private coal companies are getting a reduced price on a publicly owned commodity and then turning around and selling it for private gain.

To prevent coal companies from taking unfair advantage of the public’s resources, the Department of Interior has paused coal leasing on all public lands while a thorough evaluation and long-overdue revamping of the BLM’s leasing program takes place.

Faith communities are deeply concerned about justice in our energy system. We want our families to be healthy, for those who want to work to have access to jobs with dignity, and for our ecosystems to thrive. When considering a coal lease we must not jeopardize our communities’ health nor the health of God’s creation. We must consider the entire lifespan of coal – from mining to transport to burning, and the impact it has on air and water quality, human health, and climate change. We must also ensure that when coal mining does occur, local communities reap the benefits.

President Obama agrees. In his 2016 State of the Union speech, the president said that, “rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future — especially in communities that rely on fossil fuels. That’s why 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.”

Transitioning away from coal to renewables and other clean energy options is the inevitable, necessary, and moral choice. Yet as our energy sources change, we must ensure communities most dependent on fossil fuels aren’t left behind. Any evaluation of the federal coal program must include plans for expanded economic opportunities and a just transition for workers.

The current coal leasing review provides an excellent opportunity to live out our values of stewardship, sustainability, and justice. We must be good caretakers of the land, ensure resources for future generations, and protect the health and well being of our neighbors. The Department of Interior has the opportunity to do the right thing. We are praying that they will.

Join us and other people of faith on June 21 at the Sheraton in downtown Seattle to tell the federal government that the health of our communities and economies are no longer for sale. If you cannot make it, your voice can still be heard — you can submit a public comment until July 28 by visiting http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/info/newsroom/2016/may/nr_05_16_2016.html.

LeeAnne Beres is executive director of Earth Ministry / Washington Interfaith Power & Light, ww.earthministry.org The Rev. John Rosenberg is a retired Lutheran pastor from Olympia and also serves on the Earth Ministry/WAIPL board.