Despite climate concerns, Wyoming public land opened to coal leasing

Despite climate concerns, Wyoming public land opened to coal leasing

Coal Companies combining operations

Rail cars loaded with coal sit on the tracks in June at Arch Coal's Black Thunder mine near Wright. The Bureau of Land Management announced Monday it plans to open nearly a half million acres to additional energy development in northern Wyoming.

CASPER — The Bureau of Land Management announced Monday it plans to unlock roughly 500,000 acres of federal land for additional mineral development in northern Wyoming, despite protests from conservation groups that increased coal mining in the region will exacerbate climate change.

In an additional environmental review and resource plan released last month, the federal agency considered the impacts leasing the available public land in the Powder River Basin could have on the climate.

Under a reasonably foreseeable scenario, the Bureau of Land Management estimated additional coal mining on the public land could contribute 368.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere annually (about 6% of national emissions). That's equivalent to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions coming from 78 million cars or 64 million homes over the course of a year. 

"Wyoming had the highest percentage of carbon dioxide and methane emissions from fuels produced on federal lands of all states and offshore regions (in the U.S)," the agency's final plan noted, citing a 2018 U.S. Geological Survey.

Nonetheless, the Bureau of Land Management stood firm in its decision to open up the vast majority of available federal land for business.

The bureau also cited the economic benefits coal mining on the federal land could have for Wyoming communities under reasonably foreseeable development, including 3,413 coal jobs and nearly $400 million in labor income over the next two decades. 

The Bureau of Land Management office in Buffalo was required to offer this additional analysis after a court concluded the agency's 2015 resource management plan and environmental impact statement were insufficient. 

The Western Organization of Resource Councils, along with several other conservation groups, had filed a lawsuit against the federal government claiming the Bureau of Land Management did not adequately consider alternatives that would mitigate the "cumulative and indirect" affects of fossil fuel extraction, as required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The act requires the government to take a "hard look" and consider the "adverse environmental effects of the proposed action” before opening up the land.

Last year, the U.S. District Court of Montana Great Falls Division sided with the conservation groups. The judge ruled the Bureau of Land Management did not sufficiently account for environmental damages, such as greenhouse gas emissions, before leasing the land in Wyoming for mining activity. 

According to court documents, the federal agency "acted arbitrarily and capriciously" when opening up public minerals in the Powder River Basin. The court concluded the federal agency failed to adequately assess certain environmental consequences like downstream and global warming emissions. It ordered the Bureau of Land Management's Buffalo field office to undertake additional analysis.

The Buffalo field office's final plan opens up 496,314 acres (of the 686,896 available acres) to leasing in northern Wyoming.

Making federal land available for leasing does not mean mining will commence immediately, or ever. Interested companies must first submit a lease application and clear extensive state and federal regulatory hurdles. A steady decline in demand for coal, among other factors, has also chilled new mining projects.

Shannon Anderson is an attorney with the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a landowners group involved in the court case. 

"This federal coal is coal owned by you and me as American taxpayers," she noted. "It's managed and leased by the Bureau of Land Management, and that has a climate consequence. It just does."

No companies are pursuing new coal leases in the basin, according to a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management. Still, the agency has a responsibility to consider all possible environmental outcomes in case market conditions do change, Anderson added.

The bureau's decision comes as the Energy Information Administration reported Tuesday that energy-related activity contributed 5.27 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere last year, a nearly 3% increase from 2017. Though emissions from coal declined, natural gas emissions increased by 10% compared to 2017.

This marks the first year carbon emissions have climbed since 2014. 

The Powder River Basin's 16 coal mines produce over 40% of the nation's coal, making it the largest epicenter of coal production in the country.


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