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Illegal Coal Mining Threatening the Climate, Scamming the Public

Groups File Motion Challenging Coal Leases in Powder River Basin of Wyoming

Powder River Basin of Wyoming—WildEarth Guardians, the Sierra Club, and Defenders of Wildlife late last week filed a motion in federal court to overturn the U.S. Interior Department’s decision to lease 300 million tons of coal in the Powder River Basin of northeastern Wyoming, a decision that threatens to fuel global warming, foul the air, and defraud the public.

“This is a step forward in our efforts to protect people and our planet from extreme weather, dwindling water supplies, and other climate change horrors,” said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program Director.  “By leasing hundreds of millions of tons of federal coal, our government is doing more to make global warming a threat to our lives than anyone else in this nation.  If we don’t hold them accountable, then we have no hope for a safe and healthy future.”

The motion challenges the Belle Ayr North and Caballo West coal leases, which were green-lighted by Interior’s Bureau of Land Management in 2010.  The leases, which guarantee coal companies the right to mine, would expand the Belle Ayr and Caballo strip mines in the Powder River Basin, the seventh and eighth largest coal mines in the U.S., respectively.

The Powder River is already the nation’s largest coal producing region and is linked to more carbon pollution than any other single region in the U.S.  Producing 42% of all coal mined in the country, the strip mines of this region fuel more than 200 power plants from Oregon to New Jersey.  Increasingly, companies are exporting coal from the Powder River Basin to Asia and other points abroad.

In 2011, a coalition of groups led by WildEarth Guardians filed suit in federal court to overturn the Belle Ayr North and Caballo West coal leases.  The suit targeted the Bureau of Land Management’s failure to limit carbon pollution and to protect clean air from strip mining in the Powder River Basin. 

The latest motion calls on the federal court to rule that the Bureau of Land Management violated federal environmental laws.  The motion also comes on the heels of a reports in 2012 that the federal leasing program has cost American taxpayers almost $1 billion annually in the past 30 years.

“The Interior Department is ripping off the public at the expense of our environment,” said Nichols.  “This reckless disregard for taxpayer dollars and for the future of our nation has to be stopped.”

When burned, the coal stripped from the Belle Ayr North and Caballo West leases would release nearly 500 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, enough to fuel 142 power plants for an entire year.  The mining comes as atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are greatly exceeding 350 parts per million, the level considered safe for humanity.

The coal leasing comes even as President Obama has called for limits on carbon pollution within the federal government to confront global warming.  In 2009, the President called on all federal agencies to “measure, report, and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions from direct and indirect activities.”

Despite this, the Interior Department has overseen one of the greatest expansions of coal mining in the U.S. ever.  In the last three years, Interior has proposed 16 new coal leases in the Powder River Basin that would collectively mine more than 6.8 billion tons of coal, which when burned threatens to release more than 11.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide—twice the amount of greenhouse gases released annually in the U.S.

A ruling on the lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Washington, D.C. isn’t expected until later in 2013.


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