BLM proposes end to federal coal leasing in Powder River Basin

William Gleason

May 17, 2024

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced a historic move that would end future coal leasing on federal lands in the Powder River Basin, the largest coal producing region in the United States.

The agency announced two proposals that are in response to a 2022 federal court order requiring the agency to analyze the climate and public health impacts of burning fossil fuels in its land use plans for the areas.

In final supplemental environmental impact statement and proposed amendment to its Buffalo Field Office land use plan, BLM selected 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.

WyoFile reported 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.

The agency noted the sharp decline in coal production in the region since its peak in 2008. Powder River Basin mines produced 234 Mt (258 million st) of surface coal in 2022, down from 450 Mt (496 million st) in 2008, according to the Energy Information Administration. Wyoming accounts for most of that production.

Most Powder River Basin coal is used for electricity generation. EIA projects that by 2050, U.S. coal-fired generating capacity will be less than half of 2022 levels as the nation shifts to cleaner sources.

The decision marked a win for environmental groups that sued the agency to stop new coal leasing in the region.

“For years, conservation groups have litigated to get to this point — arguing that the federal government cannot simply lease away our public lands to coal companies while ignoring the impacts to public health,” Drew Caputo, an attorney with Earthjustice, said in a statement. “We are grateful that the Biden administration has shown the courage to end coal leasing in the Powder River Basin and at long last turn the page on this climate-destroying fuel.”

Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming said the decision would kill jobs and reduce revenues his state needs for schools, roads and other services.
“President Biden continues to wage war on Wyoming’s coal communities and families,” Barrasso said in a statement.

The release of the draft plans will kick off a 30-day comment period. BLM said it will approve the plans after resolving any protests or complaints during that time.

The proposal drew criticism from the mining industry.

“At a time of deteriorating grid reliability, soaring electricity demand and ongoing concern about global energy shocks, proposing a plan of no new coal leasing in the Powder River Basin is outrageous,” the National Mining Association said in a statement. “This damages American energy security and affordability and is a severe economic blow to mining states and communities. The NMA strongly opposes this political move, not only because it ignores the nation’s continued need for federal coal but because it also fails to acknowledge BLM’s multiple use mandate under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.”

Reporting from Reuters and WyoFile.

Photo: Dump trucks haul coal and sediment at the Black Butte coal mine outside Rock Springs, Wyoming, U.S. April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart/File Photo



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