WildEarth Guardians files suit over more Interior approvals for western coal mines

Citing mounting risks to the climate from carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, WildEarth Guardians said Sept. 17 that it filed suit in federal court to overturn coal mining approvals by the U.S. Department of the Interior in Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming.

“Our climate simply can’t afford more mining and the inevitable coal burning and flood of carbon pollution,” said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program Director. “It’s time for the Interior Department to pull its head out of the sand and come clean with the American public that it can’t keep rubberstamping the coal industry’s demands.”

The suit, lodged in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, challenges four approvals that allowed companies to expand and mine more publicly owned coal—two in Wyoming, one in Colorado, and one in New Mexico—over the failure of Interior Department to provide any public notice of its decisions and to account for the climate impacts of approving expanded coal mining. The suit follows a “successful” WildEarth Guardians lawsuit targeting coal mining in Colorado, said the environmental group. Notable is that the group won a May decision from this same district court over U.S. Office of Surface Mining permitting for the Trapper and Colowyo coal mines in Colorado, with that decision now on appeal to a higher court.

In that May ruling, a federal judge held the Interior Department violated the law by approving coal mining with no public notice and with no consideration of coal burning impacts. WildEarth Guardians has similar lawsuits pending in Montana and New Mexico.  And recently WildEarth Guardians filed suit to overturn a coal lease recently approved by the Interior Department in Utah.

This new lawsuit says the venue is proper at the Colorado federal court because the challenged decisions were largely made at the OSM regional office in Denver.

Sally Jewell, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, has raised questions over whether the mining of publicly owned coal is consistent with U.S. climate objectives, the group noted. More than 40% of all coal produced in the nation is publicly owned. When burned, this coal releases more than 10% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, the group said. Sally Jewell has called for the federal coal program to be “modernized,” but the Interior Department continues to sign off on more minng, the group added.

“It’s time to keep our coal in the ground, not open the door for more mining and more carbon,” said Nichols. “Modernizing the federal coal program means getting it in line with the need to combat climate change.”

Four coal producers are affected by the lawsuit

Between November 2013 and March 2015, Interior approved expanded mining at Peabody Energy‘s (NYSE: BTU) El Segundo mine in northwestern New Mexico, the Bowie No. 2 mine in western Colorado of Bowie Resources, the Antelope mine in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming of Cloud Peak Energy (NYSE: CLD) and the nearby Black Thunder mine of Arch Coal (NYSE: ACI). All told, Interior’s approvals opened the door for more than 530 million tons of coal mining, WildEarth Guardians said. When burned, this coal stands to release nearly a billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, as much as is released by 208 million cars every year.

The lawsuit challenges:

  • A November 2013 approval by the Secretary of the Interior of a Mining Plan modification for the Antelope Mine in Wyoming. The lawsuit said this covered 411 million tons of new coal to be mined under 4,746 acres, extending the mine life by about 13 years at a production rate of 37 million tons/year.
  • A May 2014 approval by the Secretary of the Interior of a Mining Plan modification for the El Segundo Mine in New Mexico. This approval authorized surface coal mining, a production rate of up to 7.8 million tons per year, and ultimate recovery of 9.2 million tons of coal from 435 acres. Under the decision, the life of the mine would continue for an additional 19.8 years.
  • A March 16, 2015, approval by the Secretary of the Interior of a Mining Plan modification for the Bowie No. 2 Mine in Colorado. This approval authorized the surface impacts of underground coal mining, a production rate of up to 6 million tons per year, and ultimate recovery of approximately 8 million tons of coal from 1,789 acres. The approved plan would also allow access to an additional 4 million tons of federal coal. Under the decision, the life of the mine would be extended for an additional three to five and a half years.
  • An April 18, 2015, approval by the Secretary of the Interior of a Mining Plan modification for the Black Thunder Mine in Wyoming. This approval authorized surface mining, a production rate of up to 190 million tons per year, and ultimate recovery of an additional 106.5 million tons of coal from 1,010.1 acres. Under the decision, the life of the mine would continue for an additional 21 years.

Said the lawsuit: “These Mining Plan approvals…authorized the mining of publicly owned coal. This coal will be used for combustion in power plants and other industrial sources. All of the Mining Plan approvals…fail to meet NEPA’s public notification requirements and fail to adequately consider potentially significant direct, indirect, and cumulative environmental impacts in accordance with NEPA. All of the Mining Plan approvals challenged herein violate NEPA, CEQ regulations implementing NEPA, Interior Department regulations implementing NEPA, and OSM directives.”

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.