US halts new coal leases on federal land, first review in decades

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Obama Administration Halts New Coal Mining Leases

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration, in the first major review of the country's coal program in three decades, on Friday ordered a pause on issuing coal-mining leases on federal land as part of new executive actions to fight climate change.

The halt could last three years, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told reporters, while officials determine how to protect taxpayers' stake in coal sales from public lands and how burning coal could worsen climate change.

"We have an obligation to current and future generations to ensure the federal coal program delivers a fair return to American taxpayers and takes into account its impacts on climate change," Jewell said on a conference call.

Coal mines around the U.S.:

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US halts new coal leases on federal land, first review in decades
A Caterpillar Inc. front loader scoops coal from a mound at the Arch Coal Inc. Sentinel Prep Plant in Philippi, West Virginia, U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016. Arch, the St. Louis-based holder of the second-largest reserve of coal in the U.S., filed for creditor protection Monday, with an agreement to erase $4.5 billion in debt. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Coaling towers stand at the Arch Coal Inc. Sentinel Prep Plant in Philippi, West Virginia, U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016. Arch, the St. Louis-based holder of the second-largest reserve of coal in the U.S., filed for creditor protection Monday, with an agreement to erase $4.5 billion in debt. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A truck waits to be loaded with coal at the Arch Coal Inc. Sentinel Prep Plant in Philippi, West Virginia, U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016. Arch, the St. Louis-based holder of the second-largest reserve of coal in the U.S., filed for creditor protection Monday, with an agreement to erase $4.5 billion in debt. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Coal spills out from a tower into a large pile at an Alpha Natural Resources Inc. coal preparation plant in Logan County near Yolyn, West Virginia, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015. Alpha Natural Resources Inc. filed for bankruptcy in Virginia last week, becoming the latest victim of the coal industrys worst downturn in decades. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Coal spills out from a tower into a large pile at an Alpha Natural Resources Inc. coal preparation plant in Logan County near Yolyn, West Virginia, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015. Alpha Natural Resources Inc. filed for bankruptcy in Virginia last week, becoming the latest victim of the coal industrys worst downturn in decades. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Coal sits in a pile at an Alpha Natural Resources Inc. coal preparation plant in Logan County near Yolyn, West Virginia, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015. Alpha Natural Resources Inc. filed for bankruptcy in Virginia last week, becoming the latest victim of the coal industrys worst downturn in decades. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Signage stands outside an Alpha Natural Resources Inc. coal preparation plant in Logan County near Yolyn, West Virginia, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015. Alpha Natural Resources Inc. filed for bankruptcy in Virginia last week, becoming the latest victim of the coal industrys worst downturn in decades. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
PRINTER, KY - JUNE 3: CSX Transportation coal trains sit in a rail yard on June 3, 2014 in Printer, Kentucky. New regulations on carbon emissions proposed by the Obama administration have reportedly angered politicians on both sides of the aisle in energy-producing states such as Kentucky and West Virginia. (Photo by Luke Sharrett/Getty Images)
CATTLETSBURG, KY - JUNE 3: Caterpillar front-loading machinery operates on mounds of coal at Arch Coal Terminals June 3, 2014 in Cattletsburg, Kentucky. New regulations on carbon emissions proposed by the Obama administration have reportedly angered politicians on both sides of the aisle in energy-producing states such as Kentucky and West Virginia. (Photo by Luke Sharrett/Getty Images)
SHELBIANA, KY - JUNE 3: A bulldozer operates atop a coal mound at the CCI Energy Slones Branch Terminal June 3, 2014 in Shelbiana, Kentucky. New regulations on carbon emissions proposed by the Obama administration have reportedly angered politicians on both sides of the aisle in energy-producing states such as Kentucky and West Virginia. (Photo by Luke Sharrett/Getty Images)
CATTLETSBURG, KY - JUNE 3: A tractor trailer drives by a mound of coal after delivering a truckload of coal to Arch Coal Terminals June 3, 2014 in Cattletsburg, Kentucky. New regulations on carbon emissions proposed by the Obama administration have reportedly angered politicians on both sides of the aisle in energy-producing states such as Kentucky and West Virginia. (Photo by Luke Sharrett/Getty Images)
PRINTER, KY - JUNE 3: A road leads past a coal train sitting alongside the Blackhawk Mining, LLC Spurlock Prep Plant on June 3, 2014 in Printer, Kentucky. New regulations on carbon emissions proposed by the Obama administration have reportedly angered politicians on both sides of the aisle in energy-producing states such as Kentucky and West Virginia. (Photo by Luke Sharrett/Getty Images)
Coal is dropped from a conveyer belt into a pile at the Wildcat Coal Load-Out Terminal, owned by Intermountain Power Agency outside Price, Utah Wednesday, March 5, 2014. The facility receives coal via trucks from the local mines and transfers it to call cars on trains for transport to power generation facilities. Photographer:George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images News
Coal is transported by rail after being loaded at the Wildcat Coal Load-Out Terminal, owned by Intermountain Power Agency, outside Price, Utah, U.S., on Wednesday, March 5, 2014. The facility receives coal via trucks from the local mines and transfers it to railcars for transport to power generation facilities. Photographer: George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A Caterpillar earth mover moves piles of coal at the Wildcat Coal Load-Out Terminal, owned by Intermountain Power Agency, outside Price, Utah, U.S., on Wednesday, March 5, 2014. The facility receives coal via trucks from the local mines and transfers it to railcars for transport to power generation facilities. Photographer: George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A Caterpillar earth mover moves piles of coal at the Wildcat Coal Load-Out Terminal, owned by Intermountain Power Agency, outside Price, Utah, U.S., on Wednesday, March 5, 2014. The facility receives coal via trucks from the local mines and transfers it to railcars for transport to power generation facilities. Photographer: George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Loaded Norfolk Southern coal trains sit before being unloaded at Lambert's Point Coal Terminal in Norfolk, Virginia, U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013. In 2011, coal was used to generate 30.3 percent of the world's primary energy, the highest level since 1969, according to the World Coal Association, an industry trade group. That share slipped only to 29.9 percent last year. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
The Kentucky Mine Supply Company building stands in Harlan, Kentucky, U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013. In 2011, coal was used to generate 30.3 percent of the world's primary energy, the highest level since 1969, according to the World Coal Association, an industry trade group. That share slipped only to 29.9 percent last year. Photographer: Luke Sharett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A CSX Corp. coal hopper car sits beside a Harlan County coal tipple in Totz, Kentucky, U.S., on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013. In 2011, coal was used to generate 30.3 percent of the world's primary energy, the highest level since 1969, according to the World Coal Association, an industry trade group. That share slipped only to 29.9 percent last year. Photographer: Luke Sharett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Deckhands aboard the Consol Energy Champion Coal tow boat walk along the center of the barges on the Monongahela River, during transport outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., on Wednesday, May 15, 2013. Coalâs prospects are improving after its share of U.S. power generation fell last year to 34 percent, the lowest since at least 1973, Energy Department data show. Hotter temperatures this summer that prompt American households to use more air conditioning will boost demand for coal and the railroads that ship it. Photographer: Ty Wright/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Coal sits inside a barge during transport down the Monongahela River by the Consol Energy Champion Coal tow boat outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S, on Wednesday, May 15, 2013. Coalâs prospects are improving after its share of U.S. power generation fell last year to 34 percent, the lowest since at least 1973, Energy Department data show. Hotter temperatures this summer that prompt American households to use more air conditioning will boost demand for coal and the railroads that ship it. Photographer: Ty Wright/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A coal miner shines his head lamp on coal transported on a conveyor belt after being sheared off the wall during longwall mining operations at the Consol Energy Bailey Mine in Wind Ridge, Pennsylvania, U.S., on Tuesday, May 14, 2013. Coalâs prospects are improving after its share of U.S. power generation fell last year to 34 percent, the lowest since at least 1973, Energy Department data show. Hotter temperatures this summer that prompt American households to use more air conditioning will boost demand for coal and the railroads that ship it. Photographer: Ty Wright/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Coal miners walk through a tunnel at the Consol Energy Bailey Mine in Wind Ridge, Pennsylvania, U.S., on Tuesday, May 14, 2013. Coalâs prospects are improving after its share of U.S. power generation fell last year to 34 percent, the lowest since at least 1973, Energy Department data show. Hotter temperatures this summer that prompt American households to use more air conditioning will boost demand for coal and the railroads that ship it. Photographer: Ty Wright/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A coal miner stands in a crevice to avoid a transport car at the Consol Energy Bailey Mine in Wind Ridge, Pennsylvania, U.S., on Tuesday, May 14, 2013. Coalâs prospects are improving after its share of U.S. power generation fell last year to 34 percent, the lowest since at least 1973, Energy Department data show. Hotter temperatures this summer that prompt American households to use more air conditioning will boost demand for coal and the railroads that ship it. Photographer: Ty Wright/Bloomberg via Getty Images
In this Oct. 6, 2015 photo, Scottie Stinson, a coal miner of 16 years, works to secure the roof with bolts in an underground coal mine roughly 40-inches-high in Welch, W.Va. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Dennis Ferrell, a coal miner of 15 years, watches over conveyer belts carrying coal out of the Sally Ann 1 mine Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015, in Welch, W.Va. Now employment is falling further because the world is trying to turn away from coal in hopes of protecting the environment and human health. Coal is by far the biggest source of carbon dioxide and airborne pollutants among fuels used to make electricity. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
In this Oct. 17, 2014 photo, an unreclaimed strip mine just across the state line from Kentucky's Harlan County stands in Virginia as seen from the Kentucky side of Black Mountain in Lynch, Ky. Most of Harlan Countyâs "big coal," seams thick enough for a worker to walk upright in, has long since been mined. According to the Energy Information Administration, most of what's left, 9.1 billion tons, can only be realistically gotten by surface or "strip" mining. Around here, the most cost-effective method is "mountaintop removal," in which the hills are blasted apart to expose the coal beneath. But stricter interpretation of clean water and other regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency and the courts in recent years has all but ended the practice. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
In this Oct. 16, 2014 photo, fog hovers over a mountaintop as a cut out of a coal miner stands at a memorial to local miners killed on the job in Cumberland, Ky. For over a century, life in Central Appalachia has been largely defined by the ups and downs of the coal industry. Through all the bust years, there was always the promise of another boom. Until now. There is a growing sense in these mountains that this downturn is different, deeper. That for a variety of reasons, economic, environmental, political, coal mining will not rebound this time. As recently as the late 1970s, there were more than 350 mines operating at any given time in Harlan County. Today, it's around 40. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
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Federal land accounts for over 40 percent of U.S. coal production. Most leases are on public land in Western states, primarily Wyoming, along with Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.

The review, the administration's latest move to combat climate change using executive authority rather than wait for congressional action, comes at a tough time for the industry.

Since 2012, more than 50 coal companies have filed for bankruptcy in the face of competition from cheap natural gas and clean-air regulations that have raised costs for burning the fossil fuel.

National Mining Association President Hal Quinn said development of coal projects on federal land already took more than 10 years and Friday's announcement just adds more red tape.

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"The coal supply being cut off by today's action has been the source of the lowest-cost and most reliable electricity keeping America's lights on and people working," he said.

Republican lawmakers were quick to criticize the reform effort, accusing the administration of "ravaging" coal country.

"Congress will continue to fight back against the president's ruthless pursuit of destroying people's low-cost energy sources in order to cement his own climate legacy," said U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan.

President Barack Obama, in his annual State of the Union address on Tuesday, hinted at the moves, saying he would "change the way we manage our oil and coal resources so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet."

Environmental groups had pressed the White House for years to freeze fossil fuel leases, arguing that allowing coal development on public land undermines the president's climate agenda.

Environmental activists have said that while the coal reform program is a good first step, the administration should extend the review to oil and natural gas for it to meet its goal to slash greenhouse gas emissions.

"Any good-faith effort to meet international climate targets necessitates that the vast majority of all remaining coal, oil and natural gas on federal lands must stay in the ground," said Elijah Zarlin, director of climate campaigns at activist group CREDO.

Jewell said the review will examine concerns flagged by the Government Accountability Office and the Interior Department's Inspector General, as well as members of Congress and the public.

She added that the Interior Department will also adopt measures to boost transparency of federal coal leasing.

Measures include a public database to show the carbon emitted from fossil fuels developed on public lands, posting online pending requests to lease coal or reduce government royalties, as well as capturing methane emissions from mines.

Jewell said the pause will not apply to existing coal production and that the government will allow mining of metallurgical coal used in making steel, as well as emergency leases if more reserves are needed for power generation.

"We have plenty of coal," Jewell said, adding that reserves already under lease are enough to sustain current levels of production from federal land for 20 years.

(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici, Patrick Rucker and Timothy Gardner; Editing by David Alexander and James Dalgleish)

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