Enviro groups urge Interior’s Jewell to halt several federal coal lease sales

One week before the Paris climate change summit, a coalition of environmental organizations on Nov. 23 urged Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to reject several federal coal reserve leasing proposals, arguing that this coal once produced and burned in power plants would contribute to climate change.

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management is weighing whether to approve 350 million tons of new coal mining in five states in the Western U.S. The letter from Greenpeace, WildEarth Guardians, Climate Solutions, Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club, the Grand Canyon Trust, the Montana Environmental Information Center, and the Western Environmental Law Center noted that when this coal is burned, “it would unleash more than 650 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. This is as much carbon as is released annually by more than 136 million cars.”

“Right now, the last thing the Obama Administration should be doing is giving breaks to the coal industry and approving expanded mining,” said Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Program Director for WildEarth Guardians. “The coal industry doesn’t need to be bailed out with our publicly owned coal, it’s time for Sally Jewell and the Interior Department to move to keep our coal in the ground.”

Around 40% of US annual coal production comes from publicly-owned coal, managed by the Interior Department. All of the mines in the highly-productive Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana tap federal coal reserves.

The groups pointed out that when President Barack Obama recently rejected the Keystone XL oil pipeline, he acknowledged that, “ultimately, if we’re going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky.”

The mining plan approvals the groups oppose include:

  • Belle Ayr North: This mining plan modification would authorize Alpha Natural Resources to expand the existing Belle Ayr mine in Campbell County, Wyoming, in the PRB. According to the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM), the approval would add 1,478 acres of public lands or minerals to the mine, opening the door for 218 million tons of new coal mining and extending the life of the mine by nine years. The environmental groups claimed that although the state of Wyoming ordered Alpha to post a reclamation bond of $411 million earlier this year, the state recently let the company off the hook by agreeing to accept only a $61 million “superiority” claim through Alpha’s ongoing Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding, which not only allows the company to forego posting a bond, but pledges only 15% of the company’s total bonding liability.
  • Freedom West: This mining plan modification would authorize Couteau Properties to expand the Freedom lignite mine in Mercer County, North Dakota. According to OSM, the approval would add 960 acres of public lands or minerals to the mine, opening the door for 25.6 million tons of new lmining and extending the life of the mine by two years. According to OSM, even without the proposed modification, the mine has sufficient coal to operate until 2045, the groups argued.
  • Flat Canyon Tract: This mining plan modification would authorize Bowie Resources to expand the Skyline underground mine in Carbon County, Utah. According to OSM, the approval would add 2,692 acres of public lands or minerals to the mine, opening the door for 36 million tons of new coal mining and extending the life of the mine by 12 years. “Skyline has ample reserves to continue operation without this approval,” the letter to Jewell said. “In 2011, a lease modification was approved extending the life of the mine beyond 2020. Further, all indications are that Bowie Resources likely intends to export coal from the Flat Canyon Tract overseas through the Bay Area of California. Bowie currently exports coal through California ports and is investing in a new export facility in Oakland, California. The Secretary should not be approving the export of U.S. coal and global warming pollution.”
  • Spring Creek: This mining plan modification would authorize Cloud Peak Energy to expand the Spring Creek mine in Big Horn County, Montana, which is in the PRB. According to OSM, the approval would add 498 acres of public lands or minerals to the mine, opening the door for 48.1 million tons of new coal mining and extending the life of the mine by three years. Spring Creek has ample reserves to continue operations without this mining plan approval, the groups argued. According to an analysis by the BLM, as of 2010, the Spring Creek mine had more than 17 years of coal reserves left to mine, they said. Further, Cloud Peak exports coal from Spring Creek through ports in the Pacific Northwest. The company is also attempting to secure new port capacity in Bellingham, Washington.
  • Trapper: This mining plan modification would authorize Trapper Mining to expand the Trapper mine in Moffat County, Colorado. According to OSM, the approval would add 2,423 acres of public lands or minerals to the mine, opening the door for 19 million tons of new coal mining and extending the life of the mine by nine years. Although this review is unique in that it is being undertaken after mining has already started due to a federal court order, Jewell should not rubberstamp this proposal, said the letter. The Trapper mine is one of two mines fueling the adjacent Craig power plant in northwest Colorado. The other mine, the nearby Colowyo operation, provides approximately 2.3 million tons of coal to the power plant. “However, Colowyo is permitted to extract up to six million tons of coal annually and could therefore supply the Craig power plant if the Trapper plan is rejected,” said the letter. “A rejection would not immediately shut down the power plant, but it will limit future coal availability and help spur a transition away from dirty energy.”
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.