‘Monumental Decision’: Biden admin proposes ending coal leasing in most productive mining area
The Decker Coal Mine on publicly owned land in the Powder River Basin in Decker, Montana on Nov. 13, 2013. WildEarth Guardians

The United States Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has proposed the ending of new coal leases on federal land in Montana and Wyoming’s Powder River Basin (PRB) — the nation’s most productive area for the highly polluting fossil fuel.

The new proposal would regulate millions of acres of mineral reserves on federal lands, reported The Associated Press. However, the short-term effects will likely be limited since the leases take years to develop and there is less demand for coal.

“This is a monumental decision that will save lives, safeguard our environment, and significantly cut carbon emissions in the United States,” said Drew Caputo, Earthjustice vice president of litigation for lands, wildlife, and oceans, in a press release from Earthjustice. “We are grateful that the Biden administration has shown the courage to end coal leasing in the Powder River Basin and at long last turn the page on this climate-destroying fuel.”

BLM has issued the final version of a supplemental impact statement (SEIS), as well as an amendment to the land use plan for its Buffalo Field Office, a press release from BLM said.

BLM developed the amendment and SEIS in response to a federal court order from 2022.

“The BLM’s proposed alternative, Alternative A, would amend the 2015 Buffalo Field Office resource management plan and make BLM-managed coal resources in the planning areas unavailable for future leasing. Federal coal production is anticipated to continue through 2041 under existing leases,” the BLM press release said.

The SEIS looks at alternatives to Buffalo Field Office federal coal leases and provides updated data and analysis of the health impacts of fossil fuel development in the area.

In 2022, the 12 surface coal mines that were active in the region produced roughly 220 million “short tons” of coal, down from approximately 400 million tons 14 years earlier.

The Energy Information Administration has said that coal production in both the PRB and the U.S. peaked in 2008 and has declined sharply since.

The proposal brought criticism from Republicans in Congress on the heels of a new air quality regulation by President Joe Biden that could lead to coal-fired plants being shut down if they don’t reduce their pollution, The Associated Press reported.

Environmentalists said the new proposal indicates a shift in the country’s coal policy.

“Coal companies in this region already have decades of coal locked up under leases, and it’s hard to imagine they’ll find buyers that far into the future given the competition from more affordable energy sources,” said Mark Fix, a Montana rancher who belongs to the conservation group Northern Plains Resource Council, as reported by The Associated Press.

Government analyses of the BLM proposal have said stopping federal coal leases would lower carbon dioxide emissions from the fossil fuel equal to 293 million tons annually — about the same as produced by 63 million gas-powered vehicles.

“The BLM’s decision to end coal leasing is a sea change in the transition to clean energy,” said Derf Johnson, Montana Environmental Information Center’s deputy director, in the press release from Earthjustice. “As we wind down the coal mining in the PRB, there is an immense opportunity to continue growing the clean energy economy.”




Cristen Hemingway Jaynes
Cristen Hemingway Jaynes

Cristen Hemingway Jaynes covers the environment, climate change, oceans, the Arctic, animals, anthropology, astronomy, plastics pollution, and politics. She holds a JD and an Ocean & Coastal Law Certificate from the University of Oregon School of Law.