BLM kicking off enviro review process for changes to coal leasing program

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will announce in a March 30 Federal Register notice that it intends to prepare a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to review the federal coal leasing program, which is a next step in a plan announced in January by the Obama Administration.

Said the March 30 notice: “This Notice of Intent begins the process of defining the scope of the Programmatic EIS by providing background on the Federal coal program and identifying the issues that may be addressed in the Programmatic EIS. This Notice informs the public about: Concerns that have been raised about the Federal coal program; issues that are expected to be assessed in the Programmatic EIS; and potential modifications to the Federal coal program suggested by stakeholders during the listening sessions that could be considered in the Programmatic EIS. This Notice of Intent also announces plans to conduct public scoping meetings, invites public participation in the scoping process, and solicits public comments for consideration in establishing the scope and content of the Programmatic EIS.

“The BLM will be holding public scoping meetings to obtain comments on the Programmatic EIS and plans to hold these meetings in the following locations: Casper, WY; Grand Junction, CO; Knoxville, TN; Pittsburgh, PA Salt Lake City, UT; and Seattle, WA. The BLM will announce the specific dates and locations of the scoping meetings at least 15 days in advance through local media, newspapers, and the project website at: In addition, the BLM will consider all written comments received or postmarked during the public comment period on scoping, which will close 30 days after the final public meeting.

“On January 15, 2016, the Secretary of the Interior issued Order No. 3338 directing the BLM to conduct a broad, programmatic review of the Federal coal program it administers through preparation of a Programmatic EIS under NEPA. 42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq. The Order was issued in response to a range of concerns raised about the Federal coal program, including, in particular, concerns about whether American taxpayers are receiving a fair return from the development of these publicly owned resources; concerns about market conditions, which have resulted in dramatic drops in coal demand and production in recent years, with consequences for coal-dependent communities; and concerns about whether the leasing and production of large quantities of coal under the Federal coal program is consistent with the Nation’s goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate climate change.

“In light of these issues, the Programmatic EIS will identify and evaluate potential reforms to the Federal coal program. This review will enable the Department to consider how to modernize the program to allow for the continued development of Federal coal resources, as appropriate, while addressing the substantive issues raised by the public, other stakeholders, and the Department’s own review of the comments it has received during recent listening sessions held last year in Washington, DC; Billings, Montana; Gillette, Wyoming; Denver, Colorado; and Farmington, New Mexico.

“On average, over the last few years, about 41 percent of the Nation’s annual coal production came from Federal land. Federal coal produced from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming accounts for over 85 percent of all Federal coal production. Federal coal was used to generate an estimated 14 percent of the Nation’s electricity in 2015. Coal is also used for other critical processes, including making steel (metallurgical coal).

“As of FY2015, the BLM administered 306 coal leases, covering 482,691 acres in 11 States, with an estimated 7.75 billion tons of recoverable Federal coal. Over the last decade (2006-2015), the BLM sold 32 coal leases and managed leases that produced approximately 4.3 billion tons of coal and resulted in $9.55 billion in revenue collections by the United States.

“The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates total U.S. coal production in 2015 was about 895 million short tons (MMst), 10 percent lower than in 2014 and the lowest level since 1986. EIA projects that coal production will fall by another 12 percent in 2016, then rise by 2 percent in 2017.

“The approximately 7.75 billion tons of recoverable reserves of Federal coal currently under lease is estimated to be sufficient to continue production at current levels for 20 years, averaged across all leases, and these reserves would be sufficient to cover production, on average, for even longer if coal production declines, as is projected.”

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced Jan. 15 that the Interior Department will launch this comprehensive review. The review, in the form of the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, will look at issues such as:

  • how, when, and where to lease;
  • how to account for the environmental and public health impacts of federal coal production; and
  • how to ensure American taxpayers are earning a fair return for the use of their public resources.

Consistent with the practice during two programmatic reviews of the federal coal program that occurred during the 1970s and 1980s, Interior also instituted a “pause” on issuing new coal leases while the review is underway. The pause does not apply to existing coal production activities on federal lands. There will be limited exceptions to the pause, including for metallurgical coal (typically used in steel production), small lease modifications and emergency leasing, including where there is a demonstrated safety need or insufficient reserves.

Major producers in the Powder River Basin include Arch CoalPeabody EnergyAlpha Natural ResourcesCloud Peak Energy and Westmoreland Coal.

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.