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Seattle Billionaire Steps Into Coal Fight


A coal mining operation near Gillette, Wyoming. Seattle billionaire Paul Allen is bankrolling a lawsuit over the way the federal government leases public land for coal mining.

A coal mining operation near Gillette, Wyoming. Seattle billionaire Paul Allen is bankrolling a lawsuit over the way the federal government leases public land for coal mining.

Michael Werner/KCTS9

SEATTLE — As the Seattle Seahawks eye another run at the Super Bowl, their owner Paul Allen has chosen to tackle a different challenge: climate change.

Instead of giving money to environmental groups, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft is picking up the tab for a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior, which oversees the leasing of public land to coal mining companies.

Forty percent of coal in the U.S. is mined on federal lands. Burning coal is the atmosphere’s single largest source of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.

When the Interior Department issues mining leases it does not take into account how that coal will contribute to global climate change. Allen says that needs to change, explaining in a Huffington Post guest column last month his reasoning for backing the lawsuit.

Dune Ives is senior director of Allen’s Vulcan Philanthropy and co-manager of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. She said the lawsuit targets the Interior Department because it is not following the law.

“We went into this project really trying to identify the most impactful way that we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions the most quickly,” she said.

The lawsuit contends that under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Department of the Interior must consider the environmental consequences (i.e. climate change) of its actions when it issues leases to companies to mine coal on federal lands.

“I think the law is pretty clear that climate change is the kind of impact that agencies have to take into account,” said Lisa Heinzerling, a professor at Georgetown University School of Law, “So in that respect this lawsuit seems very well founded to me.”

The lawsuit pits Paul Allen against another well-known Seattleite: Sally Jewell. She was the CEO of REI before President Barack Obama appointed her to be the interior secretary. Jewell is named as a defendant in the lawsuit. In an interview last winter, Jewell responded to a question as to how she reconciles federal coal leases with the Obama administration’s stated commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“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 so it is understanding that but also standing up other forms of energy,” Jewell said.

Jewell frequently talks up Obama’s commitment to tackling climate change. But the “all of the above” energy policy the administration has embraced runs the risk of undermining Obama’s push to reduce CO2 emissions.

“What I would think the administration would not want is for one program, lets say coal leasing, to go so pell mell in one direction that it undoes some of the good consequences in terms of climate change that are created by the administration’s other activities,” Heinzerling said.

The federal coal leasing program has been criticized for some time. A report in February from the Government Accountability Office found that the Interior Department lacks transparency and has issued leases at below-market prices. That’s cost taxpayers up to $200 million in lost revenue.

Some of the companies mining on federal land in Wyoming and Montana want to export their coal through controversial terminals in Washington and Oregon.

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