Enviro groups file latest lawsuit over BLM coal leasing

WildEarth Guardians, which has so far been unsuccessful in previous legal attempts to stop federal coal leasing in the Powder River Basin, went to court again, along with the Sierra Club, with another lawsuit.

This action, filed May 2 at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, is against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which handles leasing of federal coal reserves. The lawsuit particularly targets four lease tracts in the Wyoming Powder River Basin that are up for leasing by two coal producers with adjacent mines. Like past legal actions, WildEarth Guardians in this lawsuit again raises the issue of whether BLM should be taking into account the CO2 emissions from when this coal is burned in power plants when reviewing the environmental impacts of coal reserve leasing.

“Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of carbon dioxide in the country, responsible for 32 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions nationwide,” said the lawsuit. “The Powder River Basin is linked to more carbon dioxide emissions than almost any other region or activity in the country, because more coal is extracted from the Powder River Basin than from any other region. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (‘BLM’) itself discloses that coal from the Powder River Basin contributes 12.8 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions released in the United States and 40 percent of all carbon dioxide released by coal-fired power plants in the country.”

In spite of these CO2 emissions, BLM continues to issue new coal leases in the basin without fully analyzing the environmental impacts—particularly climate change impacts—of increased carbon dioxide emissions resulting from this coal leasing, the lawsuit said. BLM recently authorized the sale of four large coal leases in the Powder River Basin: the North Hilight, South Hilight, North Porcupine and South Porcupine leases. Collectively, these four leases have the potential to produce more than 1.8 billion tons of coal.

“In preparing its Environmental Impact Statement for the lease authorizations, BLM estimated the annual carbon dioxide emissions that would result from combustion of coal from each of these leases,” the lawsuit said. “Even though these emissions are likely to increase the amount and rate of climate change, BLM included no analysis of the environmental impacts of these emissions. Nor did BLM consider the cumulative effect of these carbon dioxide emissions together with past, present, and reasonably foreseeable coal leases in the Powder River Basin.”

WildEarth Guardians and the Sierra Club allege that BLM’s authorization of the North Hilight, South Hilight, North Porcupine and South Porcupine leases violates the National Environmental Policy Act. Separately, BLM’s decisions to sell and execute the four leases also sanction activities that will result in the violation of air pollutant emission limits established under the Clean Air Act, the lawsuit claimed. Also, it said BLM’s authorizations of these leases violate the Federal Land Policy and Management Act requirements that agency actions ensure compliance with the governing land use management plan and applicable air quality standards.

North Hilight and South Hilight are new reserves for the Black Thunder mine of Arch Coal (NYSE: ACI). The South Hilight tract was offered for sale in December 2011, with Arch the successful bidder. The lawsuit said BLM has not yet scheduled a sale date for the North Hilight tract.

North Porcupine and South Porcupine are both new reserves for Peabody Energy’s (NYSE: BTU) North Antelope Rochelle mine. The South Porcupine tract was offered for sale on Feb. 29 and BLM has not scheduled a sale date for the North Porcupine tract auction.

Black Thunder and North Antelope Rochelle are by far the two largest coal mines in the U.S., with production for each of over 100 million tons per year.

The lawsuit asks the court to vacate BLM’s environmental reviews of these lease sales as being fundamentally flawed and to vacate any of the lease sales resulting from those reviews.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.