Feds OK Powder River Basin coal leasesReprinted with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC.
Not for republication by Wyoming media.

The Bureau of Land Management has approved the latest in a string of coal leases in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, signaling strong Obama administration support for Western coal mining.

Enviro groups sue BLM over Powder River Basin leases
Story Update: Enviro groups sue BLM over Powder River Basin leases

Last week, BLM released its record of decision for the so-called South Porcupine Coal Tract, a roughly 3,000-acre plot of land in Campbell County, Wyo. Despite opposition from environmental groups, the move comes as little surprise, as BLM had signaled its intention to lease the land in an environmental impact statement evaluating it and several other tracts last year.

In its decision to move forward with the lease sale, BLM said “the effect of rejecting the coal leasing proposed throughout the PRB would be that many of the existing mines would cease operations once current reserves are depleted. Those mines would not be able to compete with other mines to meet the future coal demand that is expected to last until at least 2035.”

BTU Western Resources Inc., a subsidiary of Peabody Energy Corp., asked the agency to lease the land in 2006 to extend the life of current mining operations.

The tract contains more than 400.8 million tons of minable coal, which environmental advocates say will increase the Powder River Basin’s status as a main contributor to carbon emissions and air pollution.

Advocacy groups are appealing the lease sale through the Interior Board of Land Appeals. They are also appealing Forest Service consent to leasing the tract, which includes roughly 1,600 acres in the Thunder Basin National Grassland.

“We remain concerned that BLM is giving short shrift to the serious environmental consequences of its coal leasing program in the Powder River Basin,” said Shannon Anderson, an organizer with the Powder River Basin Resource Council, in a statement. “BLM needs to put the local conservation interests on equal footing with its desire to use the Basin as a bank for the federal government.”

But in its record of decision, BLM offered a strong defense against the environmental concerns. “BLM agrees that movement toward electric generation capacity not reliant on carbon fuels is positive,” it said.

The document also quotes Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who in 2009 said, “The fact remains that oil and gas and coal are a very important part of our energy portfolio now and they will continue to be an important part of our energy portfolio in the future.”

Concerns over carbon emissions have also led advocacy groups to try to stop BLM from moving forward with other leases in the area.

Earlier this week, Alpha Natural Resources outbid Peabody for the 1,000-acre Caballo West Coal Tract, a month after Peabody outbid Alpha for the nearby 1,671-acre Belle Ayr North Coal Tract.

“All together, coal mining in the Powder River Basin is linked to 13 percent of all the heat-trapping carbon dioxide released in the U.S. — more than any other activity,” said an action alert by the group WildEarth Guardians. “That’s why we call the Powder River Basin a root contributor to global warming.”

Advocates, who recently discussed their concerns about the Powder River Basin leases in a meeting with BLM Director Bob Abbey, also are submitting suggestions to the agency’s Buffalo, Wyo., field office, which is updating a land management plan for its region, including Campbell County.

They are also hoping BLM agrees to changes to the current lease-by-application system, which they say gives coal companies too much power in the leasing process. BLM has defended the current system because, officials say, it helps them collaborate with industry. Still, advocates say Abbey is open to suggestions.

In an interview, Anderson said, “There are opportunities there to set the stage for direction as to what BLM is going to do with its coal resource.”

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