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Obama administration to announce remake of coal programme

Humanity must stop burning coal, oil and gas to power the global economy or face an irreversible climate catastrophe, scientists, business chiefs and analysts warned at an elite gathering in the Swiss Alps.

[WASHINGTON] The Obama administration is due on Friday to announce an overhaul of how the United States manages coal development on federal land, and may freeze new coal mining, according to government and conservationist sources, in a further move to confront climate change.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is expected to make the announcement on Friday from New Mexico, one of five western states with tens of thousands of acres under lease.

Democratic President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address on Tuesday said 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." The new plan will require federal officials, when weighing land use decisions, to consider how burning coal could worsen climate change, said environmental group sources familiar with the plans.

The overhaul also will aim to maximise returns for taxpayers by updating royalty rates when mining companies pull coal from federal land, said the sources.

Interior Department spokesperson declined to give details about the Friday announcement.

Environmentalists have urged the White House to freeze new coal leases on federal land until it accounts for how that fossil fuel development contributes to climate change.

A moratorium on coal leases could be part of the reform, said environmental sources familiar with the effort.

Coal leases are often awarded without a competitive bidding process, frequently going to a single bidder, and officials can undervalue the fuel heading to market, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office has concluded. "Public lands should be developed in the public interest but taxpayers have been shortchanged for decades," said Theo Spencer of the Natural Resources Defence Council, an environmental group.

The Energy Information Administration says roughly 41 per cent of US coal production occurs on federal land.

The coal industry had been battered in recent years by competition from cheap natural gas and clean-air regulations that have raised costs for burning the black rock.

This week, Arch Coal Inc, one of the nation's largest coal companies, filed for bankruptcy - the latest mining company to seek protection from creditors in the current downturn.

The National Mining Association was not available for comment.