When You’re in a Carbon Hole Stop Digging

Here’s a retirement plan for coal that doesn’t rely on uninvented technology or science-challenged leaders

The United States has never had a president as hostile to the theory of anthropogenic climate change as Donald Trump. He has rejected climate change as a hoax, begun to undo years of Obama-era climate policies, and hired an EPA director who questions whether carbon dioxide regulates the
temperature of the planet.

It’s enough to make the climate-concerned wish for something a little more . . .well, unilateral. In this era when climate leadership seems to buy diplomatic cachet, what could a couple of powerful countries do? What could a wealthy individual such as Bill Gates do to prevent carbon dioxide from being emitted? Even Germany’s much-celebrated transition to renewable energy, which has brought down the costs of solar and wind energy worldwide, has reduced its national carbon emissions by only 7 percent. California has found more success: the world’s sixth-largest economy has brought down emissions by 10 percent since 2006. Is there another way to intervene directly in the climate system—and not through internationally dubious geo-engineering schemes such as aerosols or sea fertilization, but through simple economics?

There might be. Enter Matt Frost.

I met Frost through Twitter. I knew him first as a witty, curious guy with an unusual collection of interests: mine safety, the statistics software R, the novelist Sigrid Undset, various forms of conservatism. I knew he had five kids and many dogs and that he observed Orthodox Christianity. And I knew he had this plan for keeping coal in the ground.

As I talked to him for this story and began to suss out the realism of what he calls his “coal retirement plan,” I learned that during the day, he works in natural-resource management. When you read the EPA’s reports on US car-fuel efficiency and air pollution, you’re reading his work. So he knows what he’s talking about.

Anyway, here’s his plan.

Most climate regulations focus on making it more expensive to emit greenhouse gases. The cap-and-trade systems run by both the European Union and, soon, China take this approach: the thing they’re capping and trading is emissions.

Frost believes that instead of regulating to limit the burning of fossil fuels, we should just never remove the fuels from earth’s crust in the first place. Coal-fired power plants release about 40 percent of global carbon emissions and are a frequent target of climate policies. Frost thinks we should pay the organizations which own underground coal deposits—specifically, the US government—for the right to never mine it.

Buying unmined coal constitutes an incredibly cheap form of offsetting carbon consumption.

“The US coal deposits represent a potential store of future CO₂ emissions,” Frost told me. “The assumption, the policy assumption, is that they need to be extracted. But what if we just sequester this carbon while it’s still in coal form?”

By permanently keeping coal in the ground, carbon dioxide is in turn permanently kept out of the atmosphere. It will never trap heat in the atmosphere or debase the ocean. Thus buying unmined coal constitutes an incredibly cheap form of offsetting carbon consumption. But that’s not all it does: sequestering coal from the global market causes coal’s price to rise. So coal retirement becomes a voluntary way of pricing in the mineral’s considerable climate, environmental, and public-health costs. Coal’s price could even rise internationally, weaning other nations off the fuel.

In effect, buying coal while it’s still in the ground constitutes a very inexpensive, very simple form of geoengineering. It’s perfect for climate-concerned billionaires such as Bill Gates or even for international coalitions.

There are several ways to go about it—in the US and around the world. They’re both somewhat feasible and a little complicated.

The US is one of very few nations where mineral rights—the ability to mine an area—can be privately held. (In most nations, these rights are public or royal.) But US rights differ, depending on where you are. East of the Mississippi, a property owner typically controls not only the land that he owns a deed to, but also the rights to mine any minerals beneath that land. Particularly in Appalachia, many property owners can (and do) sever those mineral rights from their surface rights and sell them to private companies. Rights get severed and sold by coal seam, so it’s possible for multiple companies to own rights for one location, as long as they hold rights to different depths.

“If you ask someone to build a property map of mineral rights in West Virginia, you have to specify which coal seam, because each coal horizon can have a separate owner on the exact same lat-lon coordinates,” says Frost. “As you go up and down the mountain, you can run into different ownership.”

But west of the Mississippi, things work differently. Especially in Montana and the Mountain West, the government typically holds mineral rights. The Bureau of Land Management now manages those rights, as well as the rights under land that has never left the federal government’s ownership. Today, the country’s major Western coal deposits—almost 90,000 square miles—are administered by the Bureau of Land Management.

Two different mineral regimes, two different forms that Frost’s plan could take.

In Appalachia, no one would have to give a climate-concerned billionaire permission to buy up coal. In fact, Bill Gates or someone else could start buying coal there tomorrow, Frost says.

“The coal industry employs ‘land guys’ who play a lot of golf with other land guys and strategically assemble viable mining units out of the parcels they can stitch together. A shrewd buyer of retirement coal would apply the same skills, but from the angle of ‘sterilizing’ as much nearby coal as possible,” he wrote to me in an email.

He calls these sterilizing buyers “green-hat land guys.” Were a billionaire inclined to hire them, now would be an especially good time. Natural gas has pushed the cost of fossil fuels too low for the old giants to survive. Nearly every major Appalachian coal company has collapsed or filed for bankruptcy, and many national and international banks have fled the industry.

Despite that ease, Appalachia isn’t the ideal place to sequester carbon underground. Unless the government changed the tax code, the tracts of unmined coal would continue to be a taxable resource, their price fluctuating with the commodity. There would be no tax benefit to keeping the coal out of the market in perpetuity. In fact, the locked-away seams would present a perpetual tax liability.

So maybe it’s better to look to the wide-open West. The Bureau of Land Management controls vast and untapped seams of coal across many Mountain West states. It leases the rights to mine those deposits to interested companies—a program that produces about 40 percent of the nation’s annual coal haul.

The BLM began a review of its coal program after the Paris Agreement was drafted, but it was recently canceled by Ryan Zinke, Trump’s secretary of the interior. It remains the BLM’s statutory imperative to find a fair market price for coal. And anyone who leases federal coal is legally obliged to obtain its “maximum economic recovery”—in other words, they must mine all the coal that is profitable to mine.

Congress could forbid the BLM to lease coal anymore, but in an era of unified Republican control of government, that seems unlikely. So Frost proposes that the BLM alter its policy in one small way: it should let anyone lease its coal. Right now, to lease coal from the BLM, a buyer needs to present a plan to mine it. Frost wants the bureau to trash that requirement. He also wants the government to introduce a kind of perpetual easement—a special kind of long-term lease—that will let individual buyers enter the coal market and sequester carbon without the tax liability.

There are different ways to accomplish this. It may be better for individual buyers to transfer their ownership to a kind of federal carbon trust. This would make carbon sequesterers less liable for events such as underground coal fires. And because natural gas remains economically critical, Frost thinks the trust should not include rights to coalbed methane.

“Let’s look at the problem not in the sense of we’re burning too much coal, but as: coal is too cheap. What do you do about that?” he told me.

“There’s various other kludgy things that have been done in the past, when the government or a special-interest group decided a commodity was too cheap,” he says. “How do you prop up the price more? Just as when you pay people not to grow certain crops, why don’t we get out of this business of growing coal on our national carbon plantation?”

The best aspect of the coal-retirement plan, as Frost puts it, is that it doesn’t require political consensus. “Resources
devoted to lobbying for cap-and-trade have yet to directly prevent any CO₂ emissions,” he wrote in his original proposal several years ago. “By making one rather esoteric adjustment to US property law, my proposal allows each marginal dollar spent to have some small impact toward increasing the cost of burning coal.”

One small change, but a tough one in 2017, when a different administration sits behind the organ of federal rule-making. Frost thinks a coal-retirement clause would be hard to add to the BLM lease in the US, at least during the Trump era. And he doubts that a billionaire could buy coal in West Virginia, at least in a public way. That state’s school system relies on income from the severance tax, a fee exacted when coal is removed from the ground.

Previous investments in other parts of the economy, even very big ones, have not managed to substantively reduce emissions. Before the 2014 midterm-election cycle, billionaire Tom Steyer announced he would found and invest heavily in a climate-concerned super PAC. Despite his donating $65 million of his own money to the organization, only three of Steyer’s seven candidates went on to win races, most of them in already secure seats. And in 2016, of course, Hillary Clinton seemed to pay a political price over her predecessor’s alleged “war on coal,” with few apparent electoral benefits. She also lost despite raising nearly twice as much money as Trump.

Buying coal outright seems increasingly more efficient than trying to shape the debate over it.

One place supply-side climate policies could work is the Arctic.

The area north of the Arctic Circle contains an estimated 90 billion barrels of oil and nearly 1,700 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to a US Geological Survey report. Approximately 84 percent of these reserves are believed to occur offshore. While these areas are becoming increasingly accessible, drilling there remains a risky and expensive proposition. Experts say these difficult-to-exploit resources should be the focus of coalitions that aim to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

Frost isn’t the first writer to propose the planet keep its coal reserves in the ground. In 2012, Norwegian economist Bård Harstad argued that the best realistic short-term national climate policy was to buy up coal and oil reserves around the world. Not only would this be a very good policy, it is actually the most efficient climate policy imaginable, Harstad thinks.

Harstad’s policy is meant to solve a problem: some countries will want to take climate action before others do. When those climate-fighting countries impose emissions-limiting policies, they’ll burn less coal or oil—and, with global demand down, the price of coal or oil will fall. Other countries, without climate policies, will rush into the fossil-fuel market and burn what they would have burned anyway plus what the first set of nations didn’t touch. With even less incentive to invest in renewable-energy sources (because fuels are so cheap!), they’d burn more oil and gas than they would have in the first place.

Climate-concerned countries should form a coalition to purchase buried coal and gas reserves, targeting those that are extraordinarily hard to take out of the ground—for example, the Canadian tar sands.

It constitutes a kind of tragedy of the commons. The virtuous nations would get no reward for their foresight and good stewardship, and meanwhile the planet would still get hotter. Add to all this the reality that almost all the “bad” countries are going to be the poorest ones, places where cheaper electricity lets more families access refrigeration or air conditioning.

Harstad hit upon a strategy similar to Frost’s. He thinks climate-concerned countries should form a coalition and proceed as a group to purchase buried coal and gas reserves around the world. This coalition would target reserves which are extraordinarily hard to take out of the ground—for example, the Canadian tar sands. The coalition then has only to pay the relatively meager profit from these reserves to the nation in question, and it can comparatively lock up more coal.

“Note that the world fuel price will be relatively high when the focus is on reducing extraction. This will motivate all companies and countries to economize on energy and to develop green technologies or renewable sources,” Harstad wrote in a Financial Times op-ed. “Traditional climate policies, by contrast, allow countries that do not co-operate to buy fuel at a low price, and therefore, they face few incentives to adopt or develop green technologies.”

Harstad said that his and Frost’s plans were generally similar. He was less sure that private buyers, even billionaires, could shift the market in the same way an international coalition could. “An international agreement would be more effective, but also that agreement can (in fact, ‘should’) focus on reducing coal extraction. The point of my research is to show that such a treaty on extraction is the most effective climate policy,” he told me in an email.

He also disagrees with Frost about which coal should be purchased. Harstad thinks that his coalition should lease or purchase the hardest coal to access—in other words, the coal that’s most expensive to mine. Then, as demand for coal grows and the price rises—and mining companies start to look at more difficult reserves—they’ll find that coal is already locked up.

Now, five years after his op-ed, Harstad is not hopeful about the outlook for supply-side climate policies in most parts of the world. But one place it could work, he told me, was the Arctic. Five different countries make claims to the territory—and, thus, the oil deposits—in the Arctic: Canada, Russia, Norway, the US, and Denmark (via Greenland). All of them are relatively rich, and four of them are relatively progressive.

Harstad believes that all five could decide to permanently set aside the oil in the Arctic in the name of sound climate policy. It would be permanently off-limits—in the same way that 12 countries, including the US and the Soviet Union, decided to set Antarctica aside from military activity in the Antarctic Treaty. Since the oil in the Arctic is already some of the most expensive to mine, setting it aside would not require sacrificing much output.

I’ve been referring to Frost’s plan as geo-engineering. His policy tampers with the environment at least as much as our
society-wide intervention does.

But if a billionaire (or a large nonprofit with similar purchasing power) really wanted to augment its coal-buying efforts and buy the climate more time, they would have to invest in what many people think of as “real” geoengineering and what the UN calls negative emissions technologies (NETs). These are processes that pull carbon out of the atmosphere so it can be trapped on or below the surface. But you could do this without fanciful technology. A recent economic study out of Oxford University found that the most efficient NET over the next 50 years will not be carbon-capturing pumps or artificial photosynthesis, but trees. Afforestation—planting forests where there were none before—is the best, most effective way in the short term to remove carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it.

Were a donor or government to combine the two methods, this could shape the global climate on both ends: removing carbon from the atmosphere while also reducing the influence of future carbon. It could intervene directly into the system. And by raising the price of coal, it could pave the way for a more lasting international commitment—the kind of policy we’ll likely need to recover from the next four years.

Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology. This article was adapted from a piece on TheAtlantic.com.