State AGs sue feds after coal leasing resumes without environmental review

Haul trucks move coal as seen during a tour of Peabody Energy’s North Antelope Rochelle coal mine near Gillette, Wyoming, U.S. June 1, 2016. REUTERS/Kristina Barker

By Eve Byron/Courthouse News

GREAT FALLS (CN) – Attorneys general of four states on Tuesday filed a challenge of the U.S. Department of Interior’s decision to restart the federal coal-leasing program without an environmental review of it, based on their concerns linking coal to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

“Plaintiffs have long been leaders in working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow the pace of climate change,” the attorneys general of California, Washington state, New Mexico and New York wrote in the lawsuit. “Plaintiffs have a significant interest in ensuring that the federal coal-leasing program does not undermine those efforts.  Greenhouse gas emissions from the production, transport, and consumption of federal coal currently account for 11 percent of national greenhouse gas emissions, and approximately 1.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

“Plaintiffs have and will continue to be significantly affected by climate change through adverse impacts such as increased heat waves and greater air pollution, more frequent and intense storms and associated flooding, reduced snowpack and water supplies, increased wildfires, and sea level rise.”

In January 2016, then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell issued an order to prepare a new programmatic environmental impact statement to identify and evaluate potential reforms to the federal coal-leasing program. The order was in response to concerns raised by the Government Accountability Office, the department’s Inspector General, members of Congress, and the public that the program might not be in the public’s best interest and might not provide fair market value to the public for the coal sales.

The environmental analysis for the program hadn’t been updated since 1985, “despite significant new information and changes circumstances triggering the need for supplemental review,” according to the lawsuit.

Earlier this year, the Bureau of Land Management completed its scoping process and determined that an updated review was warranted. The federal agency, consistent with its practice during reviews dating back to the 1970s, placed a moratorium on new coal leasing until the review was completed in early 2019.

However, new Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke issued his own order in March, reversing Jewell and restarting the federal coal-leasing program “with no justification other than an objection to the time and cost of complying with the law,” the attorneys general say in their lawsuit.

The new lawsuit is a companion case to one filed in Montana by environmental groups the same day Zinke issued his new order. The groups challenge the repeal of the year-old moratorium on federal coal leasing because of the consequences, including climate disruption caused by burning coal.

The four attorneys general say Zinke’s action violates the National Environmental Policy Act, the Mineral Leasing Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.

The United States has the largest coal reserves in the world, with an estimated 477 billion tons of coal, of which 255 billion tons is deemed recoverable. The BLM manages coal resources on 570 million acres of public lands, overseeing 306 coal leases on 475,000 acres in 10 states. Federal coal from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming accounts for more than 85 percent of this production.

In 2013, the Government Accountability Office concluded the BLM had failed to ensure mining companies pay fair market value for leasing federal coal.  The office determined that since 1990, most federal coal leases were not sold competitively and went to a single bidder.