The same week that a Government Accountability report highlighted problems with the way the Interior Department is leasing taxpayer owned coal, Interior Secretary Jewell was touring the Pacific Northwest to discuss the impacts of climate change. That included a discussion with scientists in Seattle and a tour of Mount Rainier to “see firsthand the impacts of a changing climate on the park’s glaciers, rivers, infrastructure, access and neighboring communities.”

During that tour, Secretary Jewell was asked about the Interior Department’s role in fueling those climate impacts through the federal coal leasing program. From the audio of an interview with Ashley Ahearn at KUOW/Earthfix:

Ashley Ahearn: It’s interesting, just within your Department, the world forces around climate change are almost being wrestled out. The Department of the Interior issues the leases to mine coal and other fossil fuels that are the root- a big part of the problem, if you ask the climate scientists in terms of contributions to global greenhouse gas emissions. So it almost is- we’re here looking at the symptoms today, and you’re also issuing the permits for the cause at DOI. What do you think about the connection there?

Secretary Jewell: The president has made it clear that you can’t switch from a fossil fuel-based economy to a renewable energy based economy over night, but we can all conserve starting now. And many people are conserving and we have been supporting grants for example in water conservation and so on. We’ve also been issuing permits for renewable energy projects on public lands. But you can’t just snap your fingers and go out of a fossil fuel economy overnight. So it is understanding that but also standing up other forms of energy.

The Interior Department’s coal leasing program is subsidizing the extraction of our coal, unlocking huge quantities of carbon pollution and effectively aiding the coal industry’s export ambitions, so it’s not surprising that Secretary Jewell has faced questions about the coal leasing program in the Pacific Northwest. In fact she did last year in Portland as well:

An activist from the group Columbia Riverkeeper used the chance to ask Jewell about proposed coal export terminals. The activist wanted to know if the Department of Interior will stop granting leases while it investigates whether companies have avoided paying royalties on export sales of coal mined on land owned by the Bureau of Land Management. Jewell didn’t answer the question directly.

Secretary Jewell may need to start answering these questions more directly. Immediately following the release of this week’s GAO report, Senator Markey sent Secretary Jewell a letter with eight detailed questions about the coal leasing program, requesting a written response by February 28.

Elected officials in Oregon and Washington have also expressed concerns about the coal leasing program.

Washington Senator Maria Cantwell, in an interview with Energy & Environment Daily (subscription required) said: “I definitively think Congress should look at the fact that coal is coming from federally leased lands and are they really paying their fair share of what they’re impacting the environment with?”

Of course, the Governors of Washington and Oregon have been pressing for answers as well, as noted in an article in this month’s Rolling Stone, How the U.S. Exports Global Warming:

Last March, John Kitzhaber and Jay Inslee, the governors of Oregon and Washington, respectively, wrote to the White House expressing near disbelief that the administration seemed prepared to let Big Coal’s dreams come true. “It is hard to conceive that the federal government would ignore the inevitable consequences of coal leasing and coal export,” they wrote. Coal passing through Pacific Northwest terminals would produce, they argued, “climate impacts in the United States that dwarf those of almost any other action the federal government could take in the foreseeable future.”

And now this from Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, from the New York Times:

In a letter on Thursday to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Mr. Wyden wrote that he had “deep concerns regarding the Department of Interior’s coal leasing program.” He Wyden said that his investigation found that “multiple coal mines in multiple states have bought leases for pennies on the ton, enjoy reduced royalty rates during production (some of which are lower than prevailing rates for state land), yet appear to sell coal near, at or above expected market prices.”

The Interior Department, he said, “appears to have repeatedly shortchanged taxpayers by underestimating the volume of coal contained in reserves that is sold to lessors.”

Coal Trains in Campbell County USA