Sierra Club: Obama Admin. argues it two ways on coal and climate change

The Sierra Club on April 5 accused the U.S. Bureau of Land Management of defending four Wyoming coal leases on issues related to climate change while at the same time putting a freeze on new federal coal leasing while it re-looks at environmental impacts from federal coal leasing.

Interior Dept. Secretary Sally Jewell in January announced the halt on coal leasing and the associated environmental review. In the meantime, the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals is looking at an October 2015 appeal of a lower court decision that rejected a contention by environmental groups that BLM did an inadequate National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review of four coal leases that allow continued life for existing coal mines in the Powder River Basin. BLM filed an April 4 brief with the appeals court defending its leasing decision.

“President Obama and Secretary Jewell took a huge step forward to protect our climate when they announced the comprehensive review of the federal coal leasing program,” said Bill Corcoran, Western Regional Campaign Director for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, in an April 5 statement. “But lawyers defending BLM continue to deny that the largest leases in the history of the federal coal leasing program have any impact on our climate – and that is flat out wrong.  he brief filed by BLM’s lawyers continues to adhere to outdated assumptions about the impact these leases have on coal combustion and renewable energy generation. This rigid adherence to policies of the past shows how out-of-step BLM is with the rest of the Obama Administration on climate, even after President Obama and Secretary Jewell demonstrated a real commitment to addressing the causes and consequences of climate disruption.”

“Even as President Obama is acknowledging the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, the BLM is actively defending its decision to approve billions of tons of new coal mining,” said Jeremy Nichols, the Climate and Energy Program Director for WildEarth Guardians. “For our climate and our future, the President and Secretary Jewell need to rein in this rogue agency and start keeping our coal in the ground.”

BLM issued leases for South Hilight, North Hilight, South Porcupine and North Porcupine in 2012, covering about two billion tons of federal coal. Together the four leases would allow continued life for the nation’s two largest coal mines – Arch Coal’s Black Thunder and Peabody Energy’s North Antelope-Rochelle mines.

The Sierra Club said that if all of the newly leased coal were burned, it would release more than 3.3 billion metric tons of carbon pollution into the air.

BLM says enviro groups have no valid argument on remaining issue

Said BLM’s April 4 brief: “When considering whether to issue four coal-mining leases in the Powder River Basin that would extend the mine life of existing mines from about two to six years, BLM concluded, given the length of the extension and the then-available information about market dynamics, that not issuing maintenance leases for existing mines—that is, the “no-action alternative”—was not likely to “consequentially reduce the overall rate of national coal consumption by electric generators,” and therefore would not appreciably impact the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from national coal generation over the life of the leases.

“The Plaintiffs now appeal, and on appeal raise only one issue: They contend that BLM did not make a fully informed choice because it overestimated the carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal to generate electricity if the leases were not issued—that is, the emissions under the “no-action alternative.” Thus, this appeal is not about whether BLM failed to disclose the climate change impacts associated with the operation of the mine because BLM clearly did so. Instead, this appeal centers on the relatively narrow question of whether BLM’s approach to accounting for impacts associated with the combustion of coal from alternative sources in the no-action alternative is legally sufficient.

“The Plaintiffs’ new insistence on a precise quantification of market impacts did not come up until the Plaintiffs’ reply brief in the district court, and NEPA does not require the sort of fine-grained analysis to compare the no-action and action alternatives that the Plaintiffs seek. NEPA therefore provides no basis to set BLM’s decision aside.”

Another April 4 brief was filed by the BTU Western Resources unit of Peabody Energy, the National Mining Association and the Wyoming Mining Association. They said: “The Groups filed suit alleging that Respondent-Appellee U.S. Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) violated the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) in considering applications for certain federal coal leases by failing to take a “hard look” at: (1) the impacts of the coal leases, if granted, on local air quality and aesthetics; and (2) the impacts of such leases on global climate change. The Groups also filed declarations with the district court to support Article III standing describing how local air quality impacts would negatively affect the Groups’ enjoyment of the local aesthetics. There was no showing in those declarations that any alleged impacts on global climate change would be felt locally. The district court held that the alleged impacts on local air quality and aesthetics demonstrated a cognizable injury in fact, and that the Groups thus had standing to press their challenge of BLM’s allegedly deficient consideration of both local impacts and climate change impacts.

“On appeal, the Groups no longer press their NEPA challenge of BLM’s consideration of the impacts of the leases on local air quality and aesthetics. They now only complain about BLM’s alleged failure to adequately consider climate change impacts. Because the Groups only claim Article III injury related to their enjoyment of local aesthetics and their interest in local air quality impacts without an accompanying claim related to BLM’s NEPA analysis of those local impacts, the issue presented is whether the Groups have standing to bring this appeal.

“The Groups’ revised case theory fundamentally alters the standing calculus. In winnowing their claims on appeal, the Groups have negated their grounds for Article III standing. Having abandoned their complaint about the sufficiency of BLM’s analysis of the impacts of the proposed leases on local air quality and aesthetics, and pressing only their complaint about the adequacy of BLM’s consideration of the impacts of the coal leases on global climate change, the Groups can no longer demonstrate they have an extant injury traceable to the alleged legal violation of which they complain. After all, the Groups do not claim injury on appeal as a result of climate change; nor is there any showing in the record that climate change has caused concrete and particularized injury at the affected geographic location. They therefore lack standing.”

The North Porcupine and South Porcupine leases would allow the North Antelope Rochelle mine to produce around 95 million tons of coal per year for more than eleven years. The North Hilight and South Hilight leases would allow the Black Thunder mine to produce up to 135 million tons per year over about seven years.

The environmental groups are responding to an August 2015 decision by Judge Alan Johnson out of the U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming in a case initially filed in 2012. The judge said that BLM did an adequate environmental review of the lease applications under NEPA and that the leasing decisions were not “arbitrary, capricious or contrary to law.”

U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration data shows that the Black Thunder mine produced 99.5 million tons in 2015 and 101 million tons in 2014. The North Antelope Rochelle mine produced 109.3 million tons in 2015 and 118 million tons in 2014.

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.