Federal Court Halts Plans for Colorado Coal Mine Citing Climate Change Concerns
The federal coal leasing program has many flaws, such as cheating taxpayers out of billions of dollars, increasing mining that damages nearby land and water resources, and subsidizing the coal mining industry’s efforts to boost exports. But the biggest problem is that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) pays almost no attention whatsoever to the very obvious fact that when burned, coal will release carbon pollution and contribute to climate change.
However, thanks to an important recent court ruling, the BLM may now have a tougher time denying its role in unlocking huge amounts of carbon pollution. A federal court last week blocked Arch Coal’s plans to expand a coal mine in Colorado, on the grounds that the BLM failed to consider the impacts of climate change when it approved the mine expansion.
“This decision means that these agencies can’t bury their heads in the sand when confronting the very real impacts of climate change,” said Ted Zukoski, an attorney with Earthjustice, which brought the case along with WildEarth Guardians, High Country Conservation Advocates and the Sierra Club.
Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program director added, “This mine expansion was a lose-lose-lose proposition. We stood to lose our backcountry at the expense of our climate. Thankfully, the feds will have to take into account the costs of carbon pollution before approving more coal mining.”
One key component of the court ruling points to the BLM’s failure to incorporate the federal government’s “social cost of carbon” in its review. InsideClimate reports:
The decision was a significant judicial endorsement of a policy tool known as the “social cost of carbon,” which economists and climate scientist use to put a price in today’s dollars on the damages from drought, flood, storm, fire, disease and so forth caused by future global warming due to our emissions from burning fossil fuels.
The BLM has tried to defend its head-in-the-sand approach to coal leasing and climate change with a variety of excuses, and it’s worth reading through the court ruling for the judge’s rebuttals (key sections are pages 16-32). One that deserves particular attention is the judge’s rejection of BLM’s argument “that the same amount of coal will be burned whether or not” this particular coal lease is approved.
This is a familiar argument from fossil fuel companies and the federal agencies that too often favor their interests, and it has been debated at length in regard to fossil fuel projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline and coal export proposals—check out KC Golden’s post for a good explanation of some of the reasons why this is a weak argument, such as that it:
b.) ignores the x-factor: economic “lock-in” to dangerous climate disruption
c.) is morally dubious
This court ruling highlights yet another simple reason why this argument is so absurd when it comes to federal coal leasing – coal competes with other, less polluting forms of generating electricity. The judge writes (page 30):
The production of coal in the North Fork exemption will increase the supply of cheap, low-sulfur coal. At some point this additional supply will impact the demand for coal relative to other fuel sources, and coal that otherwise would have been left in the ground will be burned.
That gets to the core of why the federal coal leasing program is in such need of reform, and why community, health and environmental groups have called on Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to establish a moratorium on coal leasing. Even as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency moves forward with rules to limit carbon pollution from power plants, the BLM is simultaneously leasing coal at cheap rates, ignoring the enormous damage it will do to our climate and undermining progress toward cleaner forms of energy.
President Obama knows that when it comes to fossil fuel reserves, “We’re not going to be able to burn it all,” and it has been over a year since he reminded us that “someday, our children and our children’s children, will look at us in the eye and they’ll ask us, did we do all that we could when we had the chance to deal with this problem and leave them a cleaner, safer, more stable world?
Instead of heeding those words, the BLM continues to do all it can to subsidize the coal industry at the expense of everyone else. Right after the court ruling came down, it announced plans to hold yet another coal lease sale in Colorado, which would likely give more than 8 million tons of publicly owned coal, at subsidized rates, to the reserves of Bowie Resource Partners—a company that is aiming to boost coal exports from the West Coast.
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After sustained declines in the number of COVID-19 cases over recent months, restrictions are starting to ease across the United States. Numbers of new cases are falling or stable at low numbers in some states, but they are surging in many others. Overall, the U.S. is experiencing a sharp increase in the number of new cases a day, and by late June, had surpassed the peak rate of spread in early April.
Seven day rolling average of number of people confirmed to have COVID-19, per day (not including today). This chart gets updated once per day with data by Johns Hopkins. Johns Hopkins university doesn't provide reliable data for March 12 and March 13. Johns Hopkins CSSE Get the data
To Have a Second Wave, the First Wave Needs to End.<p>A wave of an infection describes a large rise and fall in the number of cases. There isn't a precise epidemiological definition of when a wave begins or ends.</p><p>But with talk of a <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/27/new-covid-19-clusters-across-world-spark-fear-of-second-wave" target="_blank">second wave in the news</a>, as an <a href="https://www.american.edu/cas/faculty/mhawkins.cfm" target="_blank">epidemiologist and public health researcher</a>, I think there are two necessary factors that must be met before we can colloquially declare a second wave.</p><p>First, the virus would have to be controlled and transmission brought down to a very low level. That would be the end of the first wave. Then, the virus would need to reappear and result in a large increase in cases and hospitalizations.</p><p>Many countries in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0908-8" target="_blank">Europe and Asia have successfully ended the first wave</a>. <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/08/new-zealand-abandons-covid-19-restrictions-after-nation-declared-no-cases" target="_blank">New Zealand</a> and <a href="https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/06/08/how-iceland-beat-the-coronavirus" target="_blank">Iceland</a> have also made it through their first waves and are now essentially coronavirus-free, with very low levels of community transmission and only a handful of active cases currently.</p>
Different States, Different Trends<p>Looking at U.S. numbers as a whole hides what is really going on. Different states are in <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html" target="_blank">vastly different situations right now</a> and when you look at states individually, four major categories emerge.</p><ol><li>Places where the first wave is ending: States in the Northeast and a few scattered elsewhere experienced large initial spikes but were able to mostly contain the virus and substantially brought down new infections. <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/new-york-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">New York</a> is a good example of this.</li><li>Places still in the first wave: Several states in the South and West – see <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/texas-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Texas</a> and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/california-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">California</a> – had some cases early on, but are now seeing massive surges with no sign of slowing down.</li><li>Places in between: Many states were hit early in the first wave, managed to slow it down, but are either at a plateau – like <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/north-dakota-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">North Dakota</a> – or are now seeing steep increases – like <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/oklahoma-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Oklahoma</a>.</li><li>Places experiencing local second waves: Looking only at a state level, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/hawaii-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Hawaii</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/montana-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Montana</a> and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/alaska-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Alaska</a> could be said to be experiencing second waves. Each state experienced relatively small initial outbreaks and was able to reduce spread to single digits of daily new confirmed cases, but are now all seeing spikes again.</li></ol><p>The trends aren't surprising based on how states have been dealing with reopening. The virus will go wherever there are susceptible people and until the U.S. stops community spread across the entire country, the first wave isn't over.</p>
What Could a Second Wave Look Like?<p>It is possible – though at this point it seems unlikely – that the U.S. could control the virus before a vaccine is developed. If that happens, it would be time to start thinking about a second wave. The question of what it might look like depends in large part on everyone's actions.</p><p>The <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1086%2F592454" target="_blank">1918 flu pandemic</a> was characterized by a mild first wave in the winter of 1917-1918 that went away in summer. After restrictions were lifted, people very quickly went back to pre-pandemic life. But a second, deadlier strain came back in fall of 1918 and third in spring of 1919. In total, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/1918-pandemic-history.htm" target="_blank">more than 500 million people were infected</a> worldwide and upwards of <a href="https://theconversation.com/compare-the-flu-pandemic-of-1918-and-covid-19-with-caution-the-past-is-not-a-prediction-138895" target="_blank">50 million died</a> over the course of three waves.</p><p>It was the combination of a quick return to normal life and a mutation in the flu's genome that made it more deadly that led to the horrific second and third waves.</p><p>Thankfully, the coronavirus appears to be much more <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.meegid.2020.104351" target="_blank">genetically stable</a> than the influenza virus, and thus less likely to mutate into a more deadly variant. That leaves human behavior as the main risk factor.</p><p>Until a <a href="https://theconversation.com/what-needs-to-go-right-to-get-a-coronavirus-vaccine-in-12-18-months-136816" target="_blank">vaccine or effective treatment is developed</a>, the tried-and-true public health measures of the last months – <a href="https://theconversation.com/this-simple-model-shows-the-importance-of-wearing-masks-and-social-distancing-140423" target="_blank">social distancing,</a> <a href="https://theconversation.com/masks-help-stop-the-spread-of-coronavirus-the-science-is-simple-and-im-one-of-100-experts-urging-governors-to-require-public-mask-wearing-138507" target="_blank">universal mask wearing</a>, frequent hand-washing and avoiding crowded indoor spaces – are the ways to stop the first wave and thwart a second one. And when there are surges like what is happening now in the U.S., further reopening plans need to be put on hold.</p>
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