COAL:

BLM Wyo. clears way for 22,000 acres of new surface mines

The Bureau of Land Management is moving forward on a plan to lease rights to about 3.2 billion tons of coal adjacent to surface mines in northeast Wyoming's Powder River Basin.

The agency's state office recently released a final environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Wright Area approving the sale of six tracts covering roughly 22,000 acres, more than half of which are located under the Thunder Basin National Grassland.

Separately, the agency announced final records of decision to lease a combined 350 million tons of coal adjacent to Alpha Natural Resources Inc.' Belle Ayr Mine and Peabody Energy's Caballo Mine south of Gillette as part of its South Gillette final EIS released last summer.

The announcements came despite pending lawsuits in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia challenging the agency's 1990 decision to "decertify" coal in the region and its failure to consider the indirect global warming impacts of leasing Powder River Basin coal.

"This is probably the biggest coal leasing decision that's ever been proposed by the federal government," Jeremy Nichols, energy and climate change director for WildEarth Guardians said of the Wright Area final EIS. "It underscores the fact that we need to keep going to court and challenging these decisions however we can."

The New Mexico-based group was joined by the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife in challenging BLM's April record of decision approving the sale of 410 million tons of coal adjacent to Cloud Peak Energy Inc.'s Antelope surface mine about 50 miles north of Douglas (Land Letter, April 8).

Nichols said his group was preparing to challenge the Caballo and Belle Ayr leasing decisions before the Interior Board of Land Appeals and is willing to take the case to federal court if their argument is rejected.

Records of decision finalizing the West Coal Creek and Maysdorf II coal leases -- the final two tracts in the South Gillette final EIS -- are expected in the coming weeks, Nichols said.

The tracks are among 12 pending "lease by application" proposals from coal operators in the Powder River Basin comprising roughly 36,000 acres and 4.5 billion tons of federally owned coal, according to the agency.

Climate change, reclamation concerns

Environmental groups contend the proposals could lead to the release of more than 10.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide, nearly one and a half times the total amount of greenhouse gases released in the United States in 2008.

The Powder River Basin produces about 40 percent of the nation's coal, which, when burned, represents about 14 percent of overall U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to BLM.

Responding to comments to its draft Wright Area EIS, BLM stated that greenhouse gas emissions are not a byproduct of the leasing process, but rather are caused by the mining and burning of coal in power plants.

"BLM does not authorize mining by issuing a lease for federal coal," the agency wrote, adding that mining companies must obtain permits from separate state and federal agencies to mine the coal. "But the impacts of mining the coal are considered in this EIS, because it is a logical consequence of issuing a maintenance lease to an existing mine."

Shannon Anderson, an organizer with the Sheridan, Wyo.-based Powder River Basin Resource Council, said BLM should think proactively about addressing greenhouse gas emissions by mandating emissions reductions at the mine site or through offset programs.

BLM also should consider whether mining companies have successfully reclaimed surface lands "as contemporaneous as possible" with new mining, as required under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, Anderson said.

"We'd like BLM to look before they lease," said Anderson, whose group is appealing the agency's West Antelope II leasing decision before the Interior Board of Land Appeals.

State pressure

The leasing decisions come less than a month after BLM Director Bob Abbey visited Wyoming to tour a coal mine in Campbell County and oil and gas operations in Carbon County.

Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) in January urged the federal government to expedite its review of millions of dollars worth of oil and gas leases held by BLM amid protests from environmental groups.

After conducting additional environmental reviews of the parcels' sage grouse habitat, BLM said it would issue 145 of the 213 leases sold at June 2008 auction, but would continue to defer 43 of the leases (Land Letter, Aug. 5).

After meeting with Abbey last month, Freudenthal said the agency appeared committed to making progress on other mineral leasing activities in the state.

"He's going to try to see if we can move things forward," Freudenthal said after Abbey's visit. "He's clearly not going to cut any corners in terms of the environmental analysis, and we didn't ask him to do that. But a lot of this stuff is just sitting there waiting for someone's signature."

Since decertification of the Powder River Federal Coal Region in 1990, 20 coal leases containing approximately 5.8 billion tons of federal coal have been issued following competitive sealed-bid sales, BLM said. Only three of those leases have attracted more than one bid.

The West Antelope II coal lease decision was the agency's first since 2007, offering relief to industry officials who have warned of depleting reserves.

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