The Belle Ayr mine in Campbell County. The Bureau of Land Management may lease up to 10 billion tons of coal in the Powder River Basin. (Wikimedia Commons/Lithium6ion)

Originally published Friday, May 29, 2015 by Environment & Energy Daily. Contact E&E for permission to republish.

A proposed Obama administration resource management plan for almost 800,000 federal acres in the Powder River Basin envisions the leasing of more than 10 billion tons of coal to mining companies over the next two decades.

Yesterday, the Interior Department unveiled more than a dozen resource management plans covering millions of acres of land across the West. The main goal was to protect the imperiled sage grouse.

But sage grouse concerns aside, coal industry critics and boosters were particularly keen on seeing whether the Bureau of Land Management would move to restrict or promote mining in parts of the coal-rich Powder River Basin.

BLM decided to leave its plans for coal within the 7 million-acre Buffalo Field Office Planning Area — consisting of federal, state and private land — largely untouched.

For companies that want to see more development allowed, the status quo was better than new restrictions. For greens, the plan is a deep disappointment.

“The BLM’s Buffalo management plan is bad business-as-usual that completely disregards our nation’s efforts to protect communities from the financial costs of climate change,” said Wyoming Sierra Club organizer Connie Wilbert.

Environmental groups have lobbied for years for stricter coal-mining controls in the Buffalo RMP. Last month, they sent Interior Department leaders a letter urging them to take climate concerns into account when finalizing the document.

“Powder River Basin coal fuels more than 230 power plants in 35 states,” Wilbert said, “linking it to 13 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and making it a prime contributor to climate disruption.”

In the final environmental impact statement for the Buffalo area RMP, BLM said it was keeping the coal leasing decisions from 2001 because it had received “no substantial new information regarding coal leasing.”

BLM’s document said, “Federal coal lands identified in 2001 as acceptable for further coal leasing consideration are available for Lease by Application, lease modifications, emergency leases, and exchanges.”

Deep in the final EIS, BLM estimated the plan would lead to 28 coal leases involving more than 100,000 acres and more than 10 billion tons of coal over the next two decades.

The agency’s decision is not yet final. BLM is now taking comment on the final EIS, which presents various alternatives, before issuing a record of decision. Alternative D is the favored choice between the most and least restrictive plans.

BLM defended its path forward by saying, “Compared to other alternatives, Alternative D would generally allow resource use if the activity could be conducted in a manner that would conserve physical, biological, and heritage and visual resources.”

During an interview in Wyoming yesterday, after announcing the sage grouse plans, BLM chief Neil Kornze said the lack of substantial changes to coal in the Buffalo RMP stemmed, in part, from an industrywide decline.

BLM’s final EIS said most of the new coal leases envisioned for the Buffalo area, if not all, will likely go to extend existing mining operations.

National conversation

The mining industry blasted Interior’s sage grouse plans as restricting too much development and threatening U.S. mineral security. But it was largely silent about coal in the Buffalo area. Company concerns are more focused on broader policy shifts affecting Western coal mining.

After years of few changes, greens have cheered Interior Department efforts to reform federal coal valuation and take more account of climate change in leasing reviews, pushed in part by court rulings (Greenwire, May 19).

Interior’s Office of Natural Resources Revenue is proposing to overhaul the way it values federal coal, which could affect how much companies pay in royalties for leases. They have strongly opposed the proposal.

Last week, BLM said it would likely issue an advance notice of proposed rulemaking for more potential changes to the coal leasing program (Greenwire, May 22). The idea is to gather more input from the public and groups on the issue.

“The secretary has committed to a national conversation” about coal leasing, said Kornze, echoing Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s recent comments on the issue (E&ENews PM, March 17).

Greenpeace coal campaigner Diana Best said yesterday, “If Secretary Jewell is serious about addressing climate change, she should stop giving away our coal and take steps to keep it in the ground.”

— Environment and Energy reporter Scott Streater contributed.

Twitter: @ManuelQ | Email:

Flickr Creative Commons photo from Wild Earth Guardians.
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