WildEarth claims 2.5 billion tons of federal coal was illegally leased

WildEarth Guardians on Sept. 26 called on the Obama Administration to cancel at least 18 “illegally approved” federal coal leases in Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming, a move that would keep upwards of 2.5 billion tons of coal in the ground.

“It’s bad enough we’ve been leasing billions of tons of coal to industry even as we’re trying to transition from fossil fuels, now we find out the Obama Administration has been doing it illegally,” said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program Director. “This is a disaster in so many ways, but the Administration has a chance to fix its mistakes, protect the public interest and defend our climate.”

The call comes as a string of rulings by a U.S. Interior Department appeals board has made clear that only officials with delegated authority can approve the leasing of publicly-owned coal, said the environmental group. Over the years, the Interior Dept. has frequently allowed officials without delegated authority to approve leasing, it added. According to the appeals board, these unauthorized approvals have no legal effect and are not valid.

A conservative estimate by WildEarth Guardians indicates at least 18 leases in the western states of Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming have been illegally approved, many of which are now being mined. The group estimated that Interior has illegally leased nearly 2.5 billion tons of publicly-owned coal, although this figure is likely much higher. This is three times the amount of coal produced in all of the U.S. in 2015. Much of this coal was ileased in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, the largest coal-producing region in the nation.

In a letter to the Interior Secretary, the Director of the Bureau of Land Management and the Director of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, WildEarth Guardians called on the agencies to cancel all illegally-approved coal leases and to withdraw any decisions allowing mining of these leases.

The leases at issue include coal reserves at Tri-State Generation and Transmission’s Colowyo surface coal mine in northwest Colorado, Bowie Resources’ Skyline underground mine in central Utah, Peabody Energy’s North Antelope Rochelle mine in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Arch Coal’s Black Thunder mine also in the Powder River Basin. North Antelope Rochelle and Black Thunder are by far the two largest U.S. coal mines.

“Peabody and other coal companies have gotten the break of a lifetime, buying illegal coal leases from the federal government to expand their mines and depend our climate debt,” said Nichols. “The Interior Department needs to step up here and make right what its done wrong, and that means canceling leases and withdrawing mining approvals.” 

WildEarth Guardians’ letter comes on the heels of a moratorium on new coal leasing adopted by the Interior Secretary in January and a commitment from the Obama Administration to reform the federal coal program to address climate change and economic impacts.

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.