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Bureau of Land Management proposal would end future coal leasing in Powder River Basin

A surface coal mine in the Powder River Basin.
BLM Wyoming
A surface coal mine in the Powder River Basin.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced on May 16 it’s proposing to end future coal leasing in the Powder River Basin in response to a 2022 court order. This basin is in northeast Wyoming and southeast Montana.

If the proposal goes through, coal mining will likely end in the region by 2041 when existing leases expire. Anyone who has previously participated in the planning process that led to the proposal has until June 17 to file a protest.

According to the agency, the 12 active surface coal mines in the area produced roughly 220 million short tons of federal coal in 2022. That’s down from a peak of roughly 400 million tons in 2008. Wyoming is the country’s biggest coal producer, accounting for about 41 percent of national supply, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Industry groups and several of Wyoming’s elected officials are slamming the end of coal leasing in the basin.

In a statement, Gov. Mark Gordon said Wyoming will try to kill or modify the plan before it becomes final.

“All the cards are on the table now. At the highest levels the Biden Administration – including Interior Secretary Haaland – have shown a complete disregard for blue-collar workers and their families; local communities and neighborhood businesses; the aspirations of local governments and economic development entities; university scientists and others diligently working on viable solutions to climate concerns; as well as the livelihoods of power plant employees and anyone who relies on dependable, affordable, and attainable electricity,” Gordon wrote.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, called the plan short-sighted.

“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. Cutting off access to our strongest resources surrenders America's greatest economic advantages – to continue producing affordable, abundant, and reliable American energy,” he wrote in a statement.

But environmental groups say it’s a “historic shift” in how the federal government manages coal, by recognizing the health and environmental impacts to nearby communities.

The Powder River Basin Resource Council, a conservation and family agriculture organization based in Wyoming, said the proposal acknowledges that the energy market has shifted away from coal.

“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,” said Lynne Huskinson, a retired coal miner from Gillette and board member of council. “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.”

Separately, several fossil fuel industry groups in the region announced they’re suing the BLM over recent increases to the costs of harvesting oil and gas from federal lands.

They argue the increased bonding amounts will effectively stop new development and especially hurt smaller companies. The agency says the increase is necessary to ensure taxpayers don’t pay for a company's reclamation costs.

“Eighty percent of Wyoming’s operators are small businesses, and together they produce a third of Wyoming’s oil,” said Pete Obermueller, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming (PAW). “Rules like this one will fall hard on the smallest of Wyoming’s operators, making it economically impossible for many of them to continue to produce. PAW joins this challenge to protect Wyoming’s small operators from the heavy hand of an Administration intent on forcing them to close their doors.”

The state of Wyoming is also suing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over new rules requiring most coal power plants to slash their emissions by 90 percent by 2032.

Nicky has reported and edited for public radio stations in Montana and produced episodes for NPR's The Indicator podcast and Apple News In Conversation. Her award-winning series, SubSurface, dug into the economic, environmental and social impacts of a potential invasion of freshwater mussels in Montana's waterbodies. She traded New Hampshire's relatively short but rugged White Mountains for the Rockies over a decade ago. The skiing here is much better.
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