In the red-rock country of southern Utah, not far from Bryce Canyon National Park, the state’s only strip coal mine occupies several hundred acres of private property. For over a decade Alton Coal Development, the company behind the Coal Hollow mine, has tried to expand its footprint onto an adjacent parcel of public land containing some 50 million tons of federally owned coal. The expansion could disturb thousands of acres of wildlife habitat, raise air pollution, and send 300 trucks rumbling down the area’s two-lane highways each day. Standing in the way is a moratorium on the troubled federal coal-leasing program that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell enacted earlier this year.
With the election of Donald Trump, the management of America’s public lands could shift, altering the landscape in southern Utah and across the Western United States. Extractive projects like the Coal Hollow expansion that have stalled or been rejected under the Obama administration could be given new life. They include drilling in the Arctic, in the North Atlantic, in the forests of Colorado, and around Glacier National Park; uranium mining at the edges of the Grand Canyon; and ramped-up logging in the national forests of the Pacific Northwest.
The federal government—we, the taxpayers—owns some 640 million acres, and about half of the land in Western states. Those lands are the source of roughly 20 percent of the oil and gas produced in the United States, and 40 percent of coal. Once burned, fossil fuels extracted from public lands account for more than a fifth of America’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Given the amount of carbon still locked in public ground—between 319 and 450 gigatons of potential carbon dioxide, according to a 2015 analysis by Ecoshift Consulting, more than half of the entire world’s carbon budget—increased development there has implications not only for local ecosystems and communities but also for the entire planet.
Trump and his pick to lead the Interior Department, Montana Representative Ryan Zinke, have invoked Teddy Roosevelt’s conservation legacy, and made mention of a desire to protect natural resources. (Zinke has not said yet whether he’ll accept the post.) But Trump also campaigned on a promise to “unleash” domestic energy production, and his team in Washington is stacked with oil, gas, and coal interests who have long sought greater access to public lands. On Tuesday, Trump promised to “cancel the restrictions on the production of American energy, including shale, oil, natural gas and clean beautiful coal.” The moratorium on the federal coal leases will probably be one of the first things to go.