Conservation groups filed a motion in U.S. District Court late Friday to defend a pause in the outdated federal coal-leasing program against a legal challenge by two Utah counties. The pause was put in place by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to allow the federal Bureau of Land Management time to review outdated policies for managing billions of tons of federal coal without locking federal lands into decades more of coal mining.
“The antiquated federal coal-leasing program is long overdue for review, and BLM shouldn’t be racing ahead with more leasing before they ensure that our air, water and climate are protected and that taxpayers are getting a fair deal for the coal they own,” said Ted Zukoski, an attorney with Earthjustice representing the coalition of intervenors. “We’re intervening to oppose the counties’ lease-first and think-later approach.”
Two Utah counties and a county association sued the Interior Department and the BLM in November. The suit alleged that the pause—which halted Alton Coal’s bid to expand its Coal Hollow Mine, in Kane County, onto a 640-acre tract of federal land near the Garfield County border—violated the law.
“If these county governments get their way, thousands of acres of Utah public lands will be put at risk,” said Lindsay Beebe, Organizing Representative for the Sierra Club’s Utah Beyond Coal campaign. “This mine is located only twelve miles southwest of Bryce Canyon National Park and 25 miles northeast of Zion National Park. The federal coal leasing program puts our public lands, our outdoor recreation economy, our health and our climate in jeopardy. Wind and solar are now cost-competitive with coal in many states. It’s time for Utah leaders to accept that reality and get serious about supporting workers who are being impacted by our transition to a clean energy economy.”
Interior Secretary Jewell halted some leasing of federal lands for coal mining in January 2016 pending a final report on the coal leasing program, which determines how 570 million publicly owned acres are leased to coal companies for exploration and mining. The Interior Department’s preliminary analysis for that report, released last Wednesday, calls for major changes to the federal coal program, which has not been significantly updated since 1979. The BLM’s review follows reports by the Interior Department’s inspector general and the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office that found most federal coal lease auctions involve only one bidder, and that taxpayers weren’t always getting the returns they deserve from coal sales.
“Last week, BLM sold the Greens Hollow coal lease in Utah for 41 cents per ton, meaning federal taxpayers gave up 16,000 pounds of coal for less than the price of a large latte at Starbucks,” said WildEarth Guardians Climate and Energy Program Director Jeremy Nichols. “That’s not a fair return; that’s a subsidy for burning dirty coal.”
The final review of the federal coal program will also study how federal coal leasing contributes to climate change. Combustion of coal mined on federal land is responsible for roughly 10 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, the key driver in human-caused climate change.
“We cannot meet our climate goals—which are critical to avoid the most catastrophic climate change impacts—while still leasing vast quantities of public coal,” said Center for Biological Diversity Senior Attorney Michael Saul. “We’re intervening because the coal programmatic review and leasing pause aren’t just legally required—they’re vitally necessary.”
Over 80 percent of the federal coal applied for under paused leases is in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana. Mining operations often occur at the expense of agricultural producers.
“I live downstream from two large coal mines that degrade the quality of water I use to irrigate my crops,” said Mark Fix, a rancher near Miles City, Montana, and a member of the Western Organization of Resource Councils. “The coal companies are way behind cleaning up after themselves, and we need the leasing pause so we can take a timeout to fix the problems caused by coal companies before there’s more damage.”
Across the nation, domestic coal production is down from 1.2 billion short tons in 2008 to under 750 million in 2016. The decline is due to market forces, including increased competition from other energy sources, like natural gas.
“Demand for coal is plummeting because there are cheaper alternatives,” said Grand Canyon Trust Energy Program Director Amber Reimondo. “A big reason for taking a break from leasing public coal reserves is to figure out how to truly help the people the coal market is deserting, not by propping up dying coal companies by selling them cheap public coal, but by directly helping coal-dependent communities to weather the changing energy market.”
Ted Zukoski, Earthjustice, (303) 641-3149
Nathaniel Shoaff, Sierra Club, (415) 977-5610
Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians, (303) 437-7663
Michael Saul, Center for Biological Diversity, (303) 915-8308
Kevin Dowling, Western Organization of Resource Councils, (406) 252-9672
Amber Reimondo, Grand Canyon Trust, (307) 389-9499