In a filing late Friday, the Biden administration’s U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) defended two Trump-era resource management plans (RMPs) that failed to comply with a court order to account for impacts from burning publicly-owned coal, including on public health, and to consider alternatives that limit coal leasing in the Powder River Basin – the largest coal-producing region in the country.
A coalition of conservation groups filed a brief in support of a motion to order BLM to conduct a new analysis and actually revise the RMPs for the Buffalo and Miles City field offices, as previously ordered by the court. The conservation groups that joined the filing are the Western Organization of Resource Councils, Montana Environmental Information Center, Powder River Basin Resource Council, Northern Plains Resource Council, Center for Biological Diversity, and WildEarth Guardians, and they are represented by attorneys at Earthjustice, Western Environmental Law Center, and Sierra Club.
In response to the BLM’s filing, the coalition issued the following statement: “President Biden promised to hold polluters accountable and accelerate the transition to clean and renewable energy. But while the president calls climate change ‘code red for humanity,’ the administration’s BLM is doubling down on Trump-era policies that prop up a dying coal industry at the expense of American taxpayers. Why does the Biden administration want to hide the devastating public health impacts of burning federal coal? And if it cares about fighting climate change, why would it refuse to even consider ways to reduce the mining of publicly owned coal?”
More than 43% of all coal produced in the U.S., and more than 85% of all federal coal produced in the U.S., comes from the Powder River Basin, which stretches more than 13 million acres across Montana and Wyoming.
The Buffalo and Miles City RMPs designate how much coal should be sold to companies and subsequently mined and burned. Almost all coal mined in the region is used for electricity production, making the region the largest single-source of carbon dioxide pollution in the nation.
In 2018, the U.S. Federal District Court for the District of Montana ordered the Trump administration’s BLM to revise its RMPs for the Miles City and Buffalo Field Offices because the agency failed to: 1) consider an alternative that reduced the amount of coal available for strip-mining, 2) disclose the impacts of downstream fossil fuel combustion; and 3) disclose the short-term climate impacts of methane emissions.
In 2020, BLM responded to the court’s order but again failed to consider the costs of alternatives that would reduce coal strip-mining and to disclose or analyze the impacts of the harmful and toxic non-greenhouse gas pollutants that will result from burning more coal, oil, and gas extracted from public lands.
In October, BLM accepted comments on a comprehensive review of the federal coal program and is expected to announce the next steps of that review in the coming weeks. If BLM is successful in its defense of the Buffalo and Miles City plans, it could make it significantly more difficult for the Biden administration to implement coal reforms stemming from the comprehensive review process.