The Government Should Get Out of the Coal Business

Not for sale.

Photographer: Luke Sharett

Six months into a three-year moratorium on new coal leases, the federal government is considering how much to charge for them when the ban expires. The price, which has long been well below market value, stands to rise drastically. But here's a better idea: Stop issuing coal leases altogether, at any price.

The public-health stakes alone justify a permanent moratorium. Air pollution from coal-fired power plants caused an estimated 13,000 deaths in 2010, as well as 20,000 heart attacks and almost 10,000 hospitalizations, at a cost of more than $100 billion.

There would be climate dividends, too. Burning coal produced one-quarter of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions last year -- more than any other source.

There was a day when burning dirty coal was considered a worthwhile price for running a successful industrial economy. That explains why the federal government has been leasing coal mines on public land for just $3 dollars an acre.

But now fracking provides access to an abundant supply of natural gas, which generates just as much electricity as coal, even more cheaply and with about half the carbon emissions. Meanwhile, solar power has increased by almost 60 percent a year over the past decade, as costs have fallen more than 70 percent. And in the past five years, the amount of wind energy in the U.S. has doubled.

By stopping new coal leases, the government could accelerate the transition to clean power. And it could lay the groundwork for ending all coal production on federal land. Existing leases account for about 40 percent of U.S. coal production, or almost 400 million tons annually. Cutting coal use by that amount would almost double the cuts expected under the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed regulations on power plants.

Unlike most climate policies, a ban on new leases would require no congressional action. And unlike the power plant rules, which the Supreme Court has put on hold, leases are a simple legal matter: The government has clear authority to set the terms for mining on federal lands.

Eventually, it might make sense to also stop new federal leases for other carbon-intensive fuels, chiefly oil. But the alternatives to gasoline-powered cars aren't nearly as far advanced as they are for coal-fired power.

And no other fossil fuel is anywhere close to being as dirty, unhealthy and harmful to the climate as coal. There's no good reason for the federal government to keep selling it.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.