January 17, 2017

A family farm and ranch organization filed a motion in U.S. District Court late Friday alongside conservation groups to defend a pause in the outdated federal coal leasing program against a legal challenge. The pause was put in place by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to allow the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) time to review outdated policies for managing billions of tons of federal coal to ensure a fair return for taxpayers and account for impacts to land and water. Two Utah counties and a county association filed a complaint against the pause filed in November.

Interior Secretary Jewell halted some leasing of federal minerals for coal mining in January 2016 pending a final report on the coal leasing program, which determines how 570 million publicly owned acres are leased to coal companies for exploration and mining. The Interior Department’s preliminary analysis for that report, released last Wednesday, calls for major changes to the federal coal program, which has not been significantly updated since 1979. The BLM’s review follows reports by the Interior Department’s inspector general and the non-partisan Government Accountability Office that found most federal coal lease auctions involve only one bidder, and that taxpayers weren’t always getting the returns they deserve from coal sales.

Over 80 percent of the federal coal applied for under paused leases is in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana. Mining operations often occur at the expense of agricultural producers. In response to the filing of a motion to intervene in the lawsuit, Mark Fix, a rancher near Miles City, Montana, and a member of the Western Organization of Resource Councils, made the following statement:

“I live downstream from two large coal mines that degrade the quality of water I use to irrigate my crops. The coal companies are way behind cleaning up after themselves, and we need the leasing pause so we can take a time-out to fix the problems caused by coal companies before there’s more damage.”