The Federal Coal Leasing Pause Is Necessary … And It’s Working

On January 15, 2016, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell issued a Secretarial Order initiating a programmatic review of federal coal policies and management. As over 40% of the coal mined in the United States is publicly-owned, the review is an important step to ensure taxpayers receive a fair return for the leasing and mining of public coal and that the Bureau of Land Management’s systems appropriately minimize environmental impacts.

On January 11, 2017, BLM released a comprehensive roadmap for reform that outlines the need for modernization in three key areas:

  • ensuring a fair return to Americans for the sale of their public coal resources,
  • assessing the structure and efficiency of the coal program in light of current market conditions, and
  • considering impacts on communities and the environment, including climate change.

Leasing Pause is Working as Intended: The pause is needed to allow decision-space for the BLM to review and reform the federal coal program, and it’s not affecting mining.

When Secretary Jewell issued her order, companies had proposed leases for over 2.9 billion tons of federal coal, even though enough coal was already under lease to continue production at current levels for 20 years.

Of the 14 pending leases not covered by the pause, which total 1.003 billion tons, two have been been sold.

Sales for the three major leases in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, which total 905 million tons (over 90% of the total tonnage not covered by the pause), have all been delayed at the request of the coal companies due to poor market conditions.

Of the 30 pending leases that are covered by the pause, which total 1.862 billion tons, one has been withdrawn and coal companies have requested exceptions to the pause for ten of these leases, three of which have been granted. Coal companies have requested that the National Environmental Policy Act analysis be continued for six pending leases, but have requested NEPA holds or not replied to BLM’s queries regarding 12 leases.

One of the largest leases, the West Hilight lease (440 million tons), was not planned for sale until 2019 at the earliest, after the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement is scheduled to be completed.

Another major lease, the Belle Ayr West lease (253 million tons), was proposed by Alpha, which was dissolved in bankruptcy. The new company, Contura, has not yet indicated whether they are interested in pursuing the lease, but have told investors they don’t plan to make new lease payments until 2028.

Wyoming’s Casper Star-Tribune Editorial Board called the pause an “opportunity” for the nation’s largest coal producing state.

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