Environmental groups, with the help of a well-known philanthropist, have sued the federal government over the environmental impacts of its coal-leasing program.
The federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), housed within the U.S. Department of the Interior, leases mining rights on federal property to private companies, many of which export the coal they extract, often without paying fair market price. The program has generated 2.2 billion tons of coal during the Obama administration alone.
"There is an inconsistency between the President’s declared policy on global warming and the coal leasing policy of the BLM."
—Ben Schreiber, Friends of the Earth
In a lawsuit (pdf) filed Tuesday, Friends of the Earth and the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WROC)—a seven-state network of farmers, ranchers, and conservationists organized to protect water quality, family farms, and ranches—ask the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to require the BLM to prepare an environmental impact statement for the federal coal leasing program.
In addition to the environmental organizations, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Paul Allen joined the lawsuit.
"The combustion of coal is one of the worst greenhouse gas emitters of any fossil fuel," Allen wrote at the Huffington Post on Tuesday. "The efforts of the Obama Administration and some members of Congress to tackle climate change are undermined by the government's own role in the mining of coal on public lands. The Bureau of Land Management, which is part of the Department of the Interior, is responsible for leasing public land for the mining of coal, oil and natural gas. The Bureau of Land Management's coal leasing program alone accounts for over 40 percent of all the coal mined in our country."
According to estimates, coal combustion for power generation accounts for 40 percent of global carbon emissions. For these reasons, in July, Greenpeace called for a moratorium on federal coal leases. Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) demanded in September that BLM halt the program until it is reformed, on the heels of a Government Accountability Office study that identified many problems with coal lease sales.
But despite clear evidence that coal extraction contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, the BLM has not studied the program's environmental impacts since 1979, nor has it ever considered the program's impact on climate change. The lawsuit claims the National Environmental Policy Act requires such a re-examination.
"The American people should not have to go to court to get the government to do its job, but we need to do what’s necessary to protect our lands for future generations," said Dune Ives, co-manager of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. "We are supporting this litigation because we can’t wait three more decades to understand the environmental impact of the federal coal leasing program."
Once those impacts are understood, environmentalists are optimistic that the BLM will be compelled to make changes in the way it manages public resources on public lands—changes that are in keeping with the government's commitment to reducing dependence on fossil fuels.
"There is an inconsistency between the President’s declared policy on global warming and the coal leasing policy of the BLM," said Ben Schreiber, climate and energy program director for Friends of the Earth.
On the ground, the impacts are already being felt, according to Bob LeResche, vice-chair of WORC and a rancher from Clearmont, Wyoming.
"More than 80 percent of federal coal comes from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming," he said. "People living in the Powder River Basin have endured many hardships not predicted in the outdated environmental studies including, lack of access to grazing lands, un-restored groundwater aquifers, toxic emissions from explosions, costly and dangerous railroad traffic in major cities to name a few. A full environmental study will enable the BLM to fulfill their duty to promote environmentally responsible management of public lands in light of climate change on behalf of the citizens of the United States."