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Feds to end coal leasing in Powder River Basin, nation’s largest source of coal

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s decision to end future coal leasing in the region is likely to be challenged.

Arch Resources' Black Thunder mine in the Powder River Basin. (Alan Nash)

By Dustin Bleizeffer

In a historic move, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has proposed ending federal coal leasing in the Powder River Basin. The region, which extends from northeast Wyoming to southern Montana, is the nation’s largest coal supplier, and for 50 years a pillar of Wyoming’s economy.

The federal agency on Thursday issued its final supplemental environmental impact statement and proposed amendment to its Buffalo Field Office land use plan, selecting a “no future coal leasing alternative.” Mining companies can still develop their existing federal coal leases, which would allow for the region’s current rate of production to continue through 2041, according to the agency’s estimates.

The BLM was required by court order to rework its land use plan updates for the Buffalo, Wyoming and Miles City, Montana field offices after local conservation groups successfully argued it had not fully considered environmental, climate and human health impacts resulting from further coal leasing in the region. The agency’s action this week opens a 30-day “protest” period, and a final order is due later this year.

To submit a written protest, visit the BLM’s Filing a Plan Protest page for instructions. Protests must be submitted by June 17.

Though the Powder River Basin coal industry has been in decline since 2008, the BLM’s decision — even if it is defeated by legal challenges — sends a strong signal to the industry, as well as Wyoming and Montana leaders, that mining in the region will come to an end, said Shannon Anderson, attorney for the Sheridan-based landowner advocacy group Powder River Basin Resource Council.

“This recognizes the reality of where things are headed and provides us certainty,” Anderson told WyoFile. “It also provides the opportunity to responsibly close these mines to ensure reclamation gets done.”

Coal trucks prepare to dump their payload at Arch Resources’ Black Thunder coal mine in northeast Wyoming. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Wyoming’s congressional delegates blasted the decision.

“This will kill jobs and could cost Wyoming hundreds of millions of dollars used to pay for public schools, roads, and other essential services in our communities,” Sen. John Barrasso, a Republican and vocal industry advocate, said in a statement. “Cutting off access to our strongest resources surrenders America’s greatest economic advantages — to continue producing affordable, abundant, and reliable American energy.”

Retired Powder River Basin coal miner Lynne Huskinson, also a member of the Powder River Basin Resource Council and Western Organization of Resource Councils that challenged the BLM, applauded the agency’s decision.

“As someone who lives near some of the largest coal mines in the nation, I’m thankful for the leadership from the BLM in finally addressing the long-standing negative impacts that federal coal leasing has had on the Powder River Basin,” Huskinson said in a statement. “For decades, mining has affected public health, our local land, air, and water, and the global climate. We look forward to BLM working with state and local partners to ensure a just economic transition for the Powder River Basin as we move toward a clean energy future.”

Wyoming coal production — primarily in the Powder River Basin — recently fell 20% with forecasts for lower-than-average demand for the rest of the year.

Despite declining demand, Wyoming Mining Association Executive Director Travis Deti believes cutting off coal leases will bring dire consequences. “In a time of deteriorating grid reliability and soaring electricity demand, make no mistake about it — the lights are going out,” Deti said in a prepared statement.

Gordon promises to sue

The BLM’s coal leasing decision is the latest in a series of federal rules aimed at drastically reducing greenhouse gas and other pollutants from fossil fuels, earning accolades from environmental groups and ire from states dependent on coal, oil and natural gas production.

The actions hit particularly hard in Wyoming where the BLM manages 18 million surface acres and about 43 million acres of subsurface minerals, including the vast majority of coal in the Powder River Basin.

  • The agency recently released a draft management plan for sage grouse habitat that could further restrict oil and gas development
  • The BLM in March announced its “final Methane Waste Rule” requiring oil and gas producers to curb greenhouse gas emissions from operations on federal and tribal lands — designations that describe 70% of Wyoming’s mineral acreage.
  • The agency is finalizing another rule to put conservation on par with the “multiple-use” doctrine guiding federal lands — another threat to Wyoming’s oil and gas industry, according to opponents.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in April issued four “final” rules aimed at drastically cutting coal pollution, including a mandate that existing coal-fired power plants cut or capture 90% of their planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions by 2032 or convert to natural gas or close altogether.

The culmination of Biden administration actions, according to Gov. Mark Gordon, appears to be a deliberate attack on fossil fuel jobs and the economies of energy-producing states.

Gov. Mark Gordon spoke with Advance Casper members Feb. 13 2024 in Casper. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

“With this latest barrage in President Joe Biden’s ongoing attack on Wyoming’s coal country and all who depend upon it, he has demonstrated his lack of regard for the environment, for working people, and for reliable, dispatchable energy,” Gordon said in a statement. “This decision [to end coal leasing], compounded by the recent EPA rules, ensures President Biden’s legacy will be about blackouts and energy poverty for Wyoming’s citizens and beyond.”

Gordon promised to “fully utilize the opportunities available to kill or modify this Record of Decision before it is signed and final.”

Praise for federal environmental actions

Environmental groups say the bold federal actions to curb planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions are long overdue.

“The only way to address the climate crisis is to transition to a renewable energy economy, and America’s public lands are at the center of that transition,” Center for Western Priorities Deputy Director Aaron Weiss said in a statement. “We’re thankful to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning, and all of the hard-working scientists and land managers who prepared these [Powder River Basin coal leasing] management plans.”

The main operations of the North Antelope Rochelle coal mine, as captured by satellite image. (Google Earth)

Conservation groups have also noted that the pollution reduction rules are accompanied by unprecedented spending via the Inflation Reduction and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs acts, injecting billions of dollars into communities throughout the nation, including funds that are specifically targeted to help energy communities transition away from fossil fuels.

Though many Wyoming communities are eager to take advantage of the federal dollars, they’ve struggled to muster the professional resources necessary to compete for them, while Gordon has rejected some of the federal programs.

Though coal has long powered the nation, markets are already adapting to cleaner forms of energy that will allow the nation to move beyond the greenhouse gas-emitting fuel, according to the Western Organization of Resource Councils’ Board Chair Paula Antoine.

“BLM’s announcement recognizes that coal’s era is ending,” Antoine said in a statement, “and it’s time to focus on supporting our communities through the transition away from coal, investing in workers, and moving to heal our lands, waters and climate as we enter a bright clean energy future.”

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.


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