Groups Sue Interior Over Climate Impacts Of Coal Leasing Program

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Last week, environmental groups Friends of the Earth and the Western Organization of Resource Councils filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia challenging the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) failure to consider the harmful climate effects of the federal coal program. The BLM is managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior and is responsible for coal leasing on approximately 570 million acres.

The lawsuit requires the BLM to re-examine its federal coal program in light of developments regarding the ramifications of burning coal and increased greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). The BLM issued a programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) for the federal coal program in 1975, which detailed the environmental consequences of federal coal leasing.

This review, however, was never updated to account for almost three decades of new information on climate change and GHG emissions from burning coal that has emerged since the PEIS was initially drafted. Under the National Environmental Policy Act, NEPA, the agency is required to consider changed circumstances and new information that affects its prior environmental analysis.

The challenge is an effort by environmental groups to confront the glaring inconsistency between the President’s efforts to combat climate change and BLM’s continued efforts to lease more federal coal.

“There is an inconsistency between the President’s declared policy on global warming and the coal leasing policy of the BLM. … [U]nder the law, BLM must provide an updated programmatic environmental impact statement that examines the contribution of mining and combustion of BLM coal to climate change and consider alternative energy policy options that would help reduce global warming,” said Ben Schreiber, climate and energy program director, Friends of the Earth.

The complaint alleges that BLM has failed to exercise its duty under NEPA to consider the cumulative or direct and indirect effects of the federal coal management program on climate change. It also calls for the BLM to issue a supplemental PEIS taking into account the climate change effects of GHGs from the mining and burning of coal from federal lands before conducting any additional coal leasing. According to the PEIS and under NEPA, BLM is required to update the PEIS “when conditions change sufficiently to require new analyses of [national] and [interregional] impacts.”

The federal coal leasing program accounts for almost 40 percent of all coal supplies in the United States, with the majority of production occurring in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana. Combustion of coal produced and sold from federal lands accounted for 11 percent of all U.S. GHG emissions in 2012 and 14 percent of annual carbon dioxide emissions, according to the complaint.

“A full environmental study will enable the BLM to fulfill their duty to promote environmentally responsible management of public lands in light of climate change on behalf of the citizens of the United States,” said Bob LeResche, Vice Chair of Western Organization of Resource Councils.

Paul G. Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, has underwritten the litigation.

It remains to be seen whether BLM will act on its own to consider the climate change effects of leasing federal coal, or whether the courts will have to step in. BLM’s Buffalo Resource Management Plan, which would lease 10 billions tons of federal coal, remains pending before the agency. It is estimated that the burning of coal leased under this plan would unlock almost 17 billion tons of carbon pollution.

Nidhi Thakar is the Deputy Director of the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress. You can follow her on Twitter at @NidhiJThakar.