BLM proposals would end coal leasing in Powder River Basin

By Scott Streater | 05/16/2024 01:39 PM EDT

The plans would stop new mining projects in the nation’s largest coal-producing region in Montana and Wyoming.

FILE - In this March 28, 2017, file photo, a dump truck hauls coal at Contura Energy's Eagle Butte Mine near Gillette, Wyo. Given the choice of what to hear first, good news or bad news, Powder River Basin coal producers and the thousands of people who work the mines are used to asking for the good news only to be told there is none. Five years of working through a historically swift decline, thermal coal regions like Campbell County and the PRB have settled for most of the mines still operating at any level as the best news they could reasonably hope for. (AP Photo/Mead Gruver, File)

A dump truck in 2017 hauling coal at a mine near Gillette, Wyoming, in the Powder River Basin coal region. Mead Gruver/AP

The Interior Department issued plans Thursday to throttle future coal mining in the nation’s largest coal-producing region.

The Bureau of Land Management proposal would end new federal coal leases in the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming, which dominates U.S. coal production.

The plans, released with no fanfare by BLM, would reverse two Trump administration land use decisions, stopping new leases for coal development projects. But they do not end coal production in the basin, with BLM determining that existing coal mines will continue operating for decades.


The election-year moves illustrate the stark contrast between the Biden administration’s climate-driven priorities compared with former President Donald Trump’s embrace of fossil fuel production on federal lands.

BLM’s plans drew immediate condemnation from the mining industry and congressional Republicans, who have accused President Joe Biden of conducting a war on domestic energy production. But environmentalists celebrated, saying nearby communities should now focus on developing new economic engines.

“BLM’s announcement recognizes that coal’s era is ending, 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,” said Paula Antoine, who chairs the Western Organization of Resource Councils’ board of directors.

House Natural Resources Chair Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) accused the administration of “weaponizing federal agencies to advance their radical climate agenda.”

“They are eliminating future coal leasing in Wyoming and Montana for the next 14 years while the U.S. struggles to meet base load power requirements and hardworking families pay record-high prices for energy,” he said in a statement. “Instead of supporting American jobs and energy, President Biden is barring access to the resources necessary to power homes and businesses and support thousands of good-paying jobs.”

BLM announced its plans in supplemental environmental impact statements and proposed land use amendments for the Miles City Field Office in eastern Montana and the Buffalo Field Office in northeast Wyoming.

The Miles City plan would close 1.2 million acres to new coal leasing, while the Buffalo Field Office proposal would close off about 48 billion short tons of coal to new leasing within a “coal development potential area” that was established in a 2019 land use plan amendment.

The reevaluations included BLM evaluating the “public health impacts, both climate and non-climate, of burning fossil fuels” that would result from allowing new coal mine leasing and production, according to Federal Register notices.

BLM determined the two operating mines in the Miles City Field Office planning area in Montana “have existing leases with sufficient coal reserves to maintain existing mine production levels until 2035 for Spring Creek Mine and 2060 for Rosebud Mine,” according to a notice in Thursday’s Federal Register.

Ditto for the Buffalo Field Office in Wyoming, where BLM determined that the 12 operating coal mines in the area have sufficient resources to continue operating through 2041.

But Rich Nolan, president and CEO of the National Mining Association, said the proposed decision is “a severe economic blow to mining states and communities” and that the association “strongly opposes this political move.”

While the Powder River Basin is currently the most significant coal production region in the country, data shows an overall decline over recent years — a not surprising development as coal-fired power plants retire. In 2017, the region produced 334 million short tons of coal compared to 258 million in 2022, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Both supplemental environmental reviews and proposed resource management plan amendments are set to be published in Friday’s Federal Register, kicking off a 30-day protest period that runs through June 17.

Both plans ended back up in the hands of BLM after a federal judge found the Trump-era approvals that proposed increased coal mine leasing had not fully complied with the National Environmental Policy Act.

But the Miles City Field Office supplemental EIS and final amended land use plan is notable because of the convoluted trail of federal court decisions and the legacy of former de facto BLM acting Director William Perry Pendley, whom a federal judge ruled had illegally performed the duties of the bureau director.

Pendley originally approved the Miles City Field Office plan in a record of decision in 2019.

That prompted former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) to sue, claiming the Miles City amendment RMP, and two others, should be thrown out because Pendley resolved protests to the amended plans when he was not authorized to perform the duties of BLM director.

Judge Brian Morris of the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana agreed and in 2020 threw out a completed RMP amendment for the Miles City Field Office because the judge ruled Pendley did not have the authority to resolve protests to that plan because he was illegally performing the duties of acting BLM director.

Morris had issued a separate ruling a month earlier that Pendley “unlawfully” led BLM on an acting basis for more than a year.

In addition, the Miles City Field Office’s amended plan was later approved a second time, without any revisions from 2019, by former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in the final weeks of the Trump presidency in an attempt to address the issues with the legality of Pendley signing land use plans and resolving protests.