Yes, the Bureau of Land Management says it expects to lease 10 billion tons of our coal — but that can still be stopped

joesmyth
joesmyth
Sep 18, 2015 · 7 min read
Almost all of the coal strip mined in the Powder River Basin belongs to US taxpayers — but it is leased to coal companies by the Bureau of Land Management with little regard to carbon pollution

One of the aims of our report last year, “Leasing Coal, Fueling Climate Change,” was to show how decisions made by bureaucrats in Bureau of Land Management (BLM) state offices had huge carbon pollution implications — yet those decisions were being made without any meaningful oversight by Interior Department officials in Washington DC or the Obama administration. As an example, we noted that one of the BLM Wyoming field offices “has proposed a Regional Management Plan (RMP) and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) which estimates 28 new coal leases amounting to 10.2 billion tons of coal… That would mean this BLM field office expects to lease coal that would unlock an estimated 16.9 billion metric tons of carbon pollution.”

This graph from the report “Leasing Coal, Fueling Climate Change” contrasts the carbon pollution that would result from burning 10.2 billion tons of Powder River Basin coal to the avoided carbon pollution from the EPA’s (then-draft) Clean Power Plan

In May 2015, BLM approved that Regional Management Plan, the “Buffalo RMP” for short, and disappointingly, BLM did not change its prediction that it would lease more than 10 billions of our coal. But interestingly, BLM has recently been trying to push back against the publicity around this 10 billion tons of coal. For example, here’s a BLM spokesperson speaking to Politifact:

In May 2015, the Wyoming field office released a resource management plan, which says the bureau “has estimated that it would issue 28 coal leases encompassing 106,400 acres with approximately 10.2 billion tons of coal…over the next 20 years.”

But this is not a proposal or prediction. This is an outer-bounds estimate generated solely for the purposes of analysis, bureau spokeswoman Kristen Lenhardt told PolitiFact. The figures refer to the maximum amount of development possible within the 20-year lifespan of the resource management plan. The many regulatory steps that happen before land is offered for a coal lease, as well as shifts in market demand, would affect the actual amount of land available.

“It was not a plan for how much coal may, or may not be, leased in future years,” she said. “It is highly unlikely that actual development during the period of the plan will be anywhere close to this number of leases or acres.”

Also noteworthy is the fact that the resource management plan did not designate any new lands for coal lease consideration. These 106,400 acres identified by the report were already categorized as lands that could be available for mining.


Overall, the Politifact piece makes several errors which reflect a lack of understanding of how the federal coal program works. But their mistakes do provide a window into some of the many problems with the federal coal program, so it’s worth looking at what exactly BLM’s Buffalo RMP does in regard to these 10 billion tons of our coal. The Buffalo RMP explicitly states:

The BLM has estimated that it would issue 28 coal leases encompassing 106,400 acres with approximately 10.2 billion tons of coal and encompassing 106,400 acres in the two high — potential areas over the next 20 years. (page 823)

Elsewhere in the Buffalo RMP, BLM also uses a range of 9–12 billion tons:

In the Buffalo RMP, BLM anticipates that under each of the alternatives considered BLM would process 28 new coal lease applications containing an estimated 9–12 billion tons of federal coal. (page 843)

As you can see, the language is quite clearly predictive: “BLM has estimated that it would issue 28 coal leases..” “BLM anticipates..” In other words (and despite Politifact’s assertion) this is BLM’s prediction for how much coal it expects to lease over the next 20 years, in the region of Wyoming covered by this particular Regional Management Plan. This region of Wyoming is part of the Powder River Basin, source of over 40% of US coal production, so estimates of production for this region are critical when it comes to assessing solutions to climate change. It’s also worth keeping in mind that other RMPs for other regions, such as the Miles City RMP, actually include even larger amounts of coal in potential lease sales, so these 10 billion tons of coal should not be considered the upper limit for how much of our coal could be leased — just BLM’s prediction for this region of Wyoming.

Yet now, despite having just stated that it “would issue 28 coal leases encompassing 106,400 acres with approximately 10.2 billion tons of coal,” BLM seems to saying that it’s not actually likely to lease that much coal. So why then didn’t BLM make available a smaller amount of our coal for leasing, instead of the full 10 billion tons? Or at minimum, consider a scenario where a smaller amount is likely to be leased? It’s not like BLM wasn’t made aware of the problems with this RMP — several environmental groups wrote letters to BLM director Neil Kornze and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell urging BLM to reconsider the coal leasing portions of the Buffalo RMP, but these were ignored.


This then gets to the point made by the BLM spokesperson that the Buffalo RMP “was not a plan for how much coal may, or may not be, leased in future years.” While the Buffalo RMP does predict that BLM will lease these 10 billion tons of coal, and it is also a key preliminary step authorizing the sale of this coal, BLM does have a point that it’s not precisely their plan to lease that much coal. But that’s because even though BLM is responsible for managing our coal, it doesn’t actually make plans for how much coal should be leased — it lets the coal industry decide that. This is one of the many ways in which BLM has largely given control of the coal leasing process to the coal industry itself — even though it’s our coal, under what’s known as the “lease by application” process, coal mining companies are allowed to choose how much coal they would like to mine, and where, with usually minimal changes from BLM. The company then submits an application to BLM. As the GAO report highlighting problems with the coal program put it, “Since 1990, all federal coal leasing has taken place through a lease-by-application process where coal companies propose tracts of land to be put up for sale by BLM.” Prior to 1990, this was not the case, as BLM had greater authority to establish regional leasing plans that would consider important factors such as coal supply and demand and environmental impacts in deciding how much coal to lease and when to lease it.

This changed because the Powder River Basin was absurdly decertified as a “coal producing region,” giving much greater control of the process to industry. You can read more about that in a 2009 report from WildEarth Guardians, or read more details about how the process works in that GAO report.

So while it’s true that the Buffalo RMP doesn’t represent BLM’s own definitive plan to lease 10 billion tons of our coal, that should be understood in the context that BLM doesn’t even really make plans about how much of our coal to lease — it lets the coal industry decide that, using the lease by application process. But beyond the coal leasing process itself, BLM can still make decisions about how much coal may be made available for leasing, including when drafting regional management plans. That is part of the reason we wanted to highlight the problems of leasing 10 billion tons of our coal early on, when the Buffalo RMP was not yet finalized, since those plans can still be changed. As we noted when the RMP plan was approved, further steps, including approving individual coal lease sales, would be required before this federal coal could be mined and burned, so there will be additional opportunities to challenge the sale of this coal.


Finally, on BLM’s point that the area in question was already available for leasing — this obscures that approval of the Buffalo RMP was a key decision, made under the Obama administration, about how to manage this region in the years ahead. But in fairness to the Obama administration, it is true that our coal has been badly mismanaged by BLM for decades, through several presidential administrations. It’s important to recognize that overall, these problems with the coal program have persisted despite the Obama administration, not because of it. At the same time, the fact that Interior Secretary Jewell and others in the Obama administration inherited this mess doesn’t diminish their responsibility to address it. This administration has made major changes to former administrations’ policies in many areas, including quite notably on climate change, coal pollution, public lands, and other environmental issues. They should do the same with the federal coal program.


Hopefully BLM’s pushback represents a recognition that leasing 10 billion tons of our coal appears out of step with the Obama administration’s efforts to address climate change. But the solution isn’t misleading denials from BLM that it made this prediction and authorization to lease this coal. Instead, BLM and Interior Department officials should take concrete steps that make clear it will not lease these 10 billion tons of coal. This shouldn’t be a difficult step at all, if BLM is confident that it won’t lease all that coal, and it would help show that BLM and the Interior Department recognize that leasing 10 billion tons of coal is more than just a PR problem — it would seriously undermine much of the Obama administration’s important efforts to address climate change. As a start, BLM Director Neil Kornze and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell could heed the latest letter about the Buffalo RMP, before it is finalized:

We ask that you withhold approval of the coal leasing portions of the RMPs and direct BLM staff to prepare a supplemental RMP and EIS covering alternatives and impacts specific to coal leasing. As part of this decision, we ask that you direct state offices to pause the processing of any coal lease applications until that analysis is complete.

Climate Desk

A journalistic collaboration on changing climate. The Atlantic, Atlas Obscura, CityLab, Fusion, Grist, The Guardian, High Country News, HuffPost, Medium, Mother Jones, The National Observer, New Republic, Newsweek, Reveal, Slate, Undark, and Wired.

joesmyth

Written by

joesmyth

Researcher and writer focused on coal, renewable energy, electric cooperatives, and climate change policy, politics, and impacts

Climate Desk

A journalistic collaboration on changing climate. The Atlantic, Atlas Obscura, CityLab, Fusion, Grist, The Guardian, High Country News, HuffPost, Medium, Mother Jones, The National Observer, New Republic, Newsweek, Reveal, Slate, Undark, and Wired.

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