It has been 35 years since the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) last performed an environmental review of its coal leasing program.
Two environmental groups are suing the BLM to force a review of the program.
Given advances in scientific knowledge of the risks posed by mining and burning coal to human health and Earth’s climate made since 1979, the groups argue that the review will “compel the Bureau of Land Management to deliver on its legal obligation to promote environmentally responsible management of public lands on behalf of the citizens of the United States.”
Friends of the Earth and the Western Organization of Resource Councils filed the lawsuit last week in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, naming Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and BLM Director Neil Kornze as lead defendants, along with the Department of the Interior and the BLM.
Citing requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act, the complaint states:
“Even though coal mined under the federal coal management program is one of the single greatest contributors to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, constituting approximately 14% of annual carbon dioxide emissions and 11% of annual greenhouse gas emissions, BLM has unlawfully failed to evaluate and consider these environmental effects.”
The lawsuit comes as President Obama is arguably getting tougher than ever on climate action, having recently signed a non-binding climate deal with China in which both countries pledge to lower emissions. Obama’s EPA is also pursuing the Clean Power Plan, which aims to rein in emissions from power plants, especially those that are coal-fired.
“There is an inconsistency between the President’s declared policy on global warming and the coal leasing policy of the BLM,” Ben Schreiber, Friends of the Earth’s Climate and Energy Program Director, said in a press release. “The lawsuit is saying, under the law, the BLM must provide an updated programmatic environmental impact statement that examines the contribution of mining and combustion of BLM coal to climate change and consider alternative energy policy options that would help reduce global warming.”
According to the BLM website, the agency is responsible for coal leasing on 570 million acres of land owned by the federal government, and receives revenues at three points: when it issues a lease, via annual rental payments of $3.00 per acre “or a fraction thereof,” and as royalties based on the value of the coal once it is mined. The state where the coal was mined also gets a share of the revenue.
The BLM does not comment on pending litigation, but its website states: “The BLM works to ensure that the development of coal resources is done in an environmentally sound manner and is in the best interests of the Nation.”
While its “Suitable Lands for Coal Leasing” guidelines list “protection of critical environmental areas” as a requirement, there is no mention of climate change implications.
The amount of coal mined through the lease program has doubled since 1990, according to Bloomberg, and now constitutes as much as 40% of coal extraction in the U.S.
The Powder River Basin, which extends from central Wyoming into southern Montana and produces 41% of U.S. coal, is the region with the most federal coal leases, producing more than 80% of coal mined from federal lands.
“People living in the Powder River Basin have endured many hardships not predicted in the outdated environmental studies, including lack of access to grazing lands, un-restored groundwater aquifers, toxic emissions from explosions, costly and dangerous railroad traffic in major cities to name a few,” Bob LeResche, a rancher from Clearmont, WY who serves as a Vice Chair of WORC, said in a statement.
“A full environmental study will enable the BLM to fulfill their duty to promote environmentally responsible management of public lands in light of climate change on behalf of the citizens of the United States,” said LeResche.
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is underwriting the lawsuit via his Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.
According to Dune Ives, co-manager of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation: “The American people should not have to go to court to get the government to do its job, but we need to do what’s necessary to protect our lands for future generations.”
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