The U.S Bureau of Land Management concluded that the Trump administration's lifting of the federal coal lease moratorium did not change the cumulative levels of greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal mined from public lands.
The bureau released a draft environmental assessment for public comment on May 22 after a federal court ruled in April that the administration ended the Obama-era moratorium on new federal coal leases in 2017 without conducting adequate environmental impact studies required under the National Environmental Policy Act. The court did not reinstate the 2016 moratorium or determine a way to remedy the situation at the time.
Attorneys had varying opinions on the significance of the federal court's ruling, with some saying it invalidated much the administration's progress with respect to coal mining on public lands and others countering that the government needed to simply correct procedural violations in the case.
Since the administration lifted the moratorium, it has approved lease applications to extend the life of Wolverine Fuels LLC's Sufco coal mine in Utah, allow Alton Coal Development LLC to mine an estimated 30.8 million tons of recoverable coal in Utah and expand the Pollyanna 8 mine, also known as the South Central coal mine, in Oklahoma.
In its environmental assessment, the bureau determined that those three mines would emit about 31 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents annually and about 227.3 million tonnes over the mines' lives. It also concluded that lifting the moratorium produced greenhouse gas emissions from the three issued leases between one and 11 months earlier than an alternative where the moratorium remained in place.
This determination is based on the assumption that the bureau would have begun issuing leases again around March following the preparation of a programmatic environmental impact statement on the coal leasing program. The order establishing the pause on coal leases "never intended to establish an indefinite moratorium in all coal leasing activities, rather it contemplated a limited pause in some leasing activities for the explicit purpose of facilitating the intent of the discretionary [programmatic environmental impact statement," according to the assessment. Had the moratorium remained in place, eight pending leases would have been produced about two years later than without the moratorium, according to the bureau.
"The release of these levels of [greenhouse gas] emissions less than a year earlier for the three issued leases, and up to 24 months earlier for the eight pending leases, would result in negligible differences temporarily to [greenhouse gas] cumulative effects from these mines," the assessment states. "The action of not lifting the coal leasing pause would have no direct effect on the quantity of [greenhouse gas] emissions potentially emitted from the mining actions other than to delay the timing of those emissions by an estimated 24 months."
The assessment also concluded that lifting the coal leasing pause did not have cumulative effects on water quality, quantity or riparian areas "as none of those mines have direct, indirect, and cumulative effects for those resources that intersect."
The environmental nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity pushed back on the assessment, saying in a May 22 release that the administration downplayed the effects of restarting the leasing program by focusing only on the three approved projects.
"Climate pollution from coal leasing on America's public lands is globally significant, but the Trump administration wants to ignore that massive threat," said Michael Saul, a senior attorney with the center, in the release. "Shrugging off huge carbon emissions while approving the entire federal coal leasing program shows the depth of climate cynicism at the Interior Department. These guys don't care how much damage they cause."
The nonprofit also claims that an environmental impact statement, which is more rigorous than an environmental assessment, must be prepared for every federal coal lease, "let alone the entire federal coal program." The bureau said in a May 22 release that the draft assessment was the first National Environmental Policy Act analysis evaluating the moratorium, noting that the Obama administration did not complete one when pausing certain federal land leasing.
The bureau is accepting comments on the assessment until June 6.