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Bureau of Land Management Pulls out Smoke and Mirrors in Coal Controversy

Claims Largest Coal Producing Region in United States is not a Coal Producing Region

Map of coal-fired power plants fueled by Powder River Basin coal

Powder River Basin, Wyoming—The U.S. Bureau of Land Management today announced that the largest coal producing region in the United States is not a coal production region.

“Once again, the U.S. Interior Department and its agencies are running interference for the fossil fuel industry,” said Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Program Director for WildEarth Guardians.  “Instead of living up to their promises to restore trust and accountability in the wake of the Gulf oil spill, Interior and the Bureau of Land Management are protecting coal companies at the expense of American taxpayers.”

The Powder River Basin of northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana is the nation’s largest coal producing region.  Nearly 500,000,000 tons are strip mined annually, more than any other region in the nation (see chart showing amount of coal produced by region).  Coal from the Powder River Basin is burned in more than 200 coal-fired power plants in more than 35 states and is increasingly being shipped overseas to be burned in Chinese coal-fired power plants. 

“Raiding the natural landscapes that make Montana and Wyoming a sportsman’s destination is a direct threat to our economies,” said Mike Scott, Regional Representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign in Montana.  “This decision will harm our economy, it will harm our climate, it will harm our land and it will discourage competition in the market, all so our coal can power dirty plants in China.

“The effect of this decision is to force taxpayers in the U.S. to effectively subsidize coal exports to China,” continued Scott. 

In response to a petition filed by WildEarth Guardians in November of 2009, Bureau of Land Management Director, Bob Abbey, upheld a 1990 decision to “decertify” the Powder River Basin (download the decision here).

The 1990 decision in essence declared the region no longer produced coal.  Director Abbey’s decision today reaffirms this declaration.

“Decertification” has allowed the Bureau of Land Management—the Interior Department agency that oversees federal coal leasing—to avoid following standard leasing procedures, allowing coal companies, rather than the federal government, to design lease boundaries that preclude competition.

A report prepared by WildEarth Guardians in 2009, entitled “UnderMining the Climate,” found that in the last 20 years, only three lease sales out of 21 have had more than one bidder (see WildEarth Guardians report).

“The coal industry has enough handouts paid for by American taxpayers,” said Scott.  “We already pay for the price of coal-fired power in the illnesses we suffer that are made worse by coal’s pollution.  Asking us to pay more so coal companies can monopolize mining in the process of damaging the climate is offensive.”

The Bureau of Land Management has not shied away from admitting that the reason for “decertification” was to accommodate coal companies looking to expand existing mines in the region.

The unfair federal leasing program has undermined the ability of the Bureau of Land Management to address global warming impacts.  Not only has it thwarted the ability of the agency to prepare a regional analysis of the global warming impacts, the “decertification” has blocked the agency from limiting coal leasing or otherwise adopting measures to address climate disruption.  WildEarth Guardians’ report found that the Powder River Basin produces 42% of all the coal burned in U.S. coal-fired power plants, releasing 800,000,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions—more than 13% of the nation’s total. 

“With responsibility over billions of tons of coal, the Bureau of Land Management can’t just call climate disruption someone else’s problem, yet Director Abbey’s decision does just that,” said Nichols. “Sadly, the Interior Department seems bent on shutting the doors to climate solutions.”

Despite the problems with “decertification,” the Bureau of Land Management is pushing to offer 12 new coal leases in the Powder River Basin (see table of proposed leases).  These leases would collectively mine up to 5.8 billion tons of coal—as much coal as has been mined from the region in the last 20 years.  WildEarth Guardians’ report found that together, these proposals threaten to lead to the release of more than 9.63 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide—more than the amount released every year by 1.7 billion passenger vehicles annually.

The groups will most likely be filing suit in federal court over the decision.


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