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Natural Resources & Energy

The Biden administration has upheld a Trump-era decision to continue coal leases on public lands

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Stephanie Joyce
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Last week, the Biden administration chose to keep in place two Trump-era decisions that benefit the coal industry. One allows the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to continue its coal leasing program which was paused by a moratorium imposed during the Obama administration. The other upholds two resource management plans (RMPs) that conservation advocates claim do not adequately consider alternatives to reduce the amount of strip mining in the Powder River Basin.

In a court filing dated Jan. 7, the administration sought to allow the BLM to continue the coal leasing program on federal lands nationwide while the program is under review, the first one of significance since 1979. They also declined to reinstate a moratorium until an environmental review is completed.

The decision comes as a stark contrast to President Biden’s previous comments on coal after he campaigned on halting fossil fuel extraction on public lands, and has drawn significant criticism from conservation, tribal, and environmental groups.

“The BLM’s failure to consider any alternative that decreases coal production in the region and instead allow five billion tons of coal to be mined and burned really runs counter to the Biden administration’s climate commitment and the BLM’s obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA),” said Rob Joyce, a Conservation Organizer with the Wyoming Chapter of the Sierra Club. “We really need this administration and our federal agencies to show that they’re serious about their climate commitments, and about protecting public health from fossil fuel pollution, and investing in a fair and just transition to a clean and renewable energy future.”

This isn’t the first time the administration’s plans have drawn criticism. In May 2021, tribal and environmental groups filed an opening brief that challenged the Biden administration’s plans to continue the coal leasing program.

“President Biden promised to hold polluters accountable and accelerate the transition to clean and renewable energy. But while the president calls climate change ‘code red for humanity,’ the administration’s BLM is doubling down on Trump-era policies that prop up a dying coal industry at the expense of American taxpayers,” read a statement released by a coalition of environmental and conservation groups in response to the Biden administration’s decision. “Why does the Biden administration want to hide the devastating public health impacts of burning federal coal? And if it cares about fighting climate change, why would it refuse to even consider ways to reduce the mining of publicly owned coal?”

In 2017, the Department of the Interior, the parent agency of the BLM, ended the Obama-era moratorium on coal mine leases on federal lands. In 2019, Earthjustice, in collaboration with other conservation groups, states, and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, successfully won a legal challenge to the policy. In response to this, an environmental assessment was conducted. However, conservationists claim that the assessment was flawed and challenged it in 2020. An opening brief to that second challenge was filed in May 2021 against the Biden administration’s desire to continue with the Trump-era decision. It also argues that the Trump administration unlawfully attempted to minimize any flaws that existed in the environmental assessment in order to reopen public lands to coal mining. This included the BLM only reviewing six coal leases, not all of the BLM’s coal leasing activities. The case is currently working its way through the courts.

Then, in October, several conservation groups filed a brief hoping to enforce a 2018 federal court order that the BLM must conduct new analyses and revise RMPs. This included RMPs drafted by the BLM’s field offices in Buffalo, Wyoming and Miles City, Montana, which are responsible for coal leases in the West.

Last week, a filing by the BLM defended Trump-era management plans that run afoul of the 2018 court decision issued by the U.S. District Court of Montana to account for environmental impacts of burning coal, its effects on public health, and to consider alternatives that limit coal leasing in the Powder River Basin.

Wyoming Public Radio reached out to the BLM for comment for this story, but a spokesperson declined to due to the active legal status of the BLM’s decision.

Though there isn’t total certainty that the Trump-era coal leasing program will remain in place after it’s been fully reviewed, the BLM is accepting applications for future coal leases. And while conservationists may be disappointed with the final decision, those in the mining industry are overall pleased with the current outcome.

“Just the fact that you have two administrations that are so radically different and you have one administration upholding the previous administration’s RMPs—I think it just shows that they did it right,” said Travis Deti, Executive Director of the Wyoming Mining Association. “We’re comfortable with it [the decision].”

However, Deti said there is uncertainty about what direction the administration may take in the future.

“We just don’t know what’s going to happen in the next three years under this administration,” he said.

Corrected: January 21, 2022 at 10:27 AM MST
The amount of coal to be mined on public lands managed by the BLM was stated as five million tons, according a quote from Rob Joyce. The number he was referring to is five billion tons.
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