Biden administration proposes ending future federal coal leasing in Powder River Basin

Republished from Kentucky Lantern

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management on Thursday released plans to end future leasing of its managed coal resources in the Powder River Basin in eastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming in a move that has angered Montana’s Republican political leaders but is being cheered by environmental groups who fought for changes to leasing plans over the past decade.

The BLM issued final supplemental environmental impact statements and amendments to its land use plans for the Miles City Field Office in Montana and the Buffalo Field Office in Wyoming, both of which recommend an end to future federal coal leasing in the regions despite the bureau considering alternatives that would allow for some future leasing.

The official plans will be published in the Federal Register on Friday, which opens up a 30-day window for people to file protests. After the window closes and the protests are resolved by the director of the BLM, which does not have a specific timeframe but in recent years has taken about nine months, the final Record of Decision and Resource Management Plan will be published and take effect.

The decisions by the BLM are key because the Powder River Basin in the two states accounts for 85% of federal coal production and about 40% of U.S. annual coal production, but the bureau says coal production in the Miles City Field Office region has declined over the past decade as more utilities move toward other energy sources for power.

The environmental groups that pushed for the end to new coal leasing called the decision a “sea change” in federal efforts to move toward cleaner energy sources.

“This decision opens new doors to a future where our public lands are not sacrificed for fossil fuel profits and, instead, can prove a bulwark of ecological and community resilience in the face of global warming,” Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, the executive director of the Western Environmental Law Center, said in a statement.

The plan for Montana would close about 1.2 million acres to new coal leasing but would allow current coal production at the Spring Creek Mine, owned by the Navajo Transitional Energy Company, to continue through 2035. It would allow production at the Rosebud Mine, owned by Westmoreland, through 2060 under their current leases, the BLM said in the notice in the Federal Register. The Absaloka Mine lost its final customer in April, the Billings Gazette reported.

Existing mines in Wyoming would be able to produce coal until 2041. The current period for the new plans runs through 2038.

The new environmental impact statement and land use plan amendments come eight years after the Western Organization of Resource Councils first challenged the 2015 Record of Decision for future leasing operations, alleging it violated the National Environmental Policy Act. In 2018, a judge found the BLM had violated NEPA, which led to another coal screening for the plans and a new NEPA analysis released in 2019 under the Trump administration.

But the Miles City plan was challenged again by the same group in 2020. In August 2022, a U.S. District Court of Montana judge also found the BLM had violated NEPA by failing to address public health and environmental effects from the mining. He ordered another new coal screening and NEPA analysis that this time considered no-leasing and limited-leasing alternatives as well as impacts to public health from burning fossil fuels in the area.

Trains loaded with Powder River Basin coal, pictured in 2006, at Union Pacific’s Bailey railyard in North Platte, Nebraska. (Dustin Bleizeffer | WyoFile)

“Coal has powered our nation for many decades, but technology, economics and markets are changing radically,” Western Organization of Resource Councils Board Chair Paula Antoine said Thursday in response to the decisions. “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, water and climate as we enter a bright clean energy future.”

The BLM said in its announcement that the Spring Creek and Rosebud mines produced a combined 18.5 million short tons (37 million pounds) of coal in 2022, which was down from 28 million short tons (56 million pounds) in 2007, “as older coal-fired electric power plants have closed and generation has shifted to natural gas and renewable energy sources.”

“Both U.S. total coal production and Powder River Basin coal production peaked in 2008 and have since declined steeply, according to the Energy Information Administration,” BLM spokesperson Mark Jacobsen said in the bureau’s announcement.

Montana Republicans unhappy with another Biden energy move; Tester reviewing

Montana’s Republican governor and three GOP members of the state’s federal delegation, who have for years been saying the Biden administration’s efforts to move the U.S toward more renewable and clean energy and away from using fossil fuels for power, sent out a joint news release decrying the BLM’s decision and blaming the “far left” for the proposed plans.

Gov. Greg Gianforte in August wrote to BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning that accepting few or no future leases would harm the state’s coal trust, Colstrip and the economy.

The group of Republicans expressed similar sentiments recently regarding the EPA’s singling-out the coal-fired plants at Colstrip with new emissions standards and believe that efforts to move away from coal and oil and gas to power the state will hurt the state’s power grid and cost workers jobs.

“Every action taken by the Biden administration is driving up the cost of affordable energy and threatening the reliability of our electrical grid. Affordable power generated by coal keeps the lights on in Montana and fuels manufacturing across the country and world,” Gianforte said in a statement. “Today’s announcement is nothing more than a gift to China and our adversaries and a slap in the face to hardworking Montanans.”

U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale, who represents eastern Montana, blamed the decision on appeasing “climate extremists” and said the plans would jeopardize Montanans’ way of life.

“BLM either does not understand or does not care that their unreliable green new deal energy sources are not feasible in places like Montana and pose real threats to our economy and national security,” Rosendale said.

A spokesperson for Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, said Tester was reviewing the proposal and calling on Montanans to submit comments during the 30-day protest window.

“Senator Tester will always stand up to President Biden’s energy policies when they don’t make sense for Montana,” spokesperson Eli Cousin said in a statement.

The new proposal comes on the heels of the BLM publishing a final rule that will allow two new types of leases on federal public lands: restoration and mitigation leases, which put those uses on the same footing as extraction. The rules have already been criticized by the same group of Montana Republican leaders who say the changes will also harm Montana’s energy industry.

The different alternatives BLM considered

But the parameters of the court-ordered review meant that three out of four of the proposed alternatives the BLM considered for the Miles City Field Office would have closed off significant acreage to new leasing.

The first alternative was to take no action and keep the 2019 plans in place, which would have made 1.2 million acres available for possible leasing.

But the three other options applied screens, multiple-use considerations, and climate change scenarios that greatly reduced the available acreage. Alternative B would have left about 69,000 acres available for possible leasing, while Alternative C would have made about 810 acres available.

A truck carrying a load of Powder River Basin coal (Photo by Dustin Bleizeffer of WyoFile).

But the alternative the BLM decided to pick makes no coal available for leasing. The Miles City planning area encompasses 2.7 million acres of BLM land and 11.7 million acres of federal coal mineral estate over 17 counties in eastern Montana.

The environmental impact analysis says the alternative the BLM chose would mean no new impacts to air quality caused by new or pending coal leases. The report forecasts Spring Creek and Rosebud would continue to support about 620 jobs through 2035 resulting in nearly $50 million in average annual income.

Utilizing Alternative D would also mean the Spring Creek Mine would run out of coal reserves about 53 years earlier than under Alternatives A and B, which would eventually lead to a loss of economic revenue and programs funded by federal coal production, the report says.

But Montana environmental groups that have fought for the changes say the new plans are a step forward in moving away from coal and cutting down on pollution.

Mark Fix, a Miles City rancher who is a member of the Northern Plains Resource Council, said the new plans reflect reality in 2024.

“Coal companies in this region already have decades of coal locked up in leasing, and it’s hard to imagine they’ll find buyers that far into the future given the competition from more affordable energy sources,” Fix said. “This plan protects taxpayers from wasting publicly owned resources on lowball leases to subsidize an industry in decline. It’s time we take a clear-eyed look at the future and start investing in a transition away from coal.”

The story is republished from the Daily Montanan, a sister publication of the Kentucky Lantern and part of the nonprofit States Newsroom network.

Kentucky Lantern is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kentucky Lantern maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jamie Lucke for questions: Follow Kentucky Lantern on Facebook and Twitter. Kentucky Lantern stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Donate to Kentucky Lantern here.