Feds say resuming coal sales from public lands has little impact on environment

(Matthew Brown | AP file photo) A mechanized shovel loads a haul truck that can carry up to 250 tons of coal at the Spring Creek coal mine near Decker, Mont., April 4, 2013. The Trump administration says the resumption of coal sales from public lands will result in a negligible increase in greenhouse gas emissions, but critics say that ignores the federal coal programs broader impacts.

Billings, Mont. • The Trump administration said Wednesday a resumption of coal sales from public lands that had been blocked under former President Barack Obama will result in a negligible increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

Critics accused the administration of producing a flawed analysis of the federal coal program that ignores its broader impacts.

A federal judge last year had faulted the administration for failing to consider potential damage to the environment when former U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in 2017 lifted a moratorium on coal sales imposed by his predecessor.

U.S. District Judge Brian Morris in Montana stopped short in his April 2019 ruling from halting coal sales but said the Department of Interior had to conduct an environmental review of its decision.

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The Trump administration review focused on potential emissions from only four coal leases in Utah and Oklahoma that were sold after the moratorium was lifted. That's a small piece of a federal leasing program that accounts for about about 40 percent of U.S. coal production, primarily from Western states that also include Wyoming, Montana and Colorado. Burning that fuel accounts for about 11 percent of annual U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to previous studies.

Interest in federal leases has slackened considerably over the past decade as many utilities switched to natural gas or renewables and demand for coal plummeted.

In documents released Wednesday, administration officials acknowledged Zinke's order had hastened the resumption of federal coal sales before a three-year review begun under Obama was complete. But they argued those sales would have resumed regardless.

The Obama administration imposed the moratorium on most federal coal sales in 2016. The move followed concerns that low royalty rates paid by mining companies were shortchanging taxpayers and that burning the fuel was making climate change worse.

“The Zinke order terminated the pause (on coal lease sales) approximately two years ahead of schedule,” officials wrote. “Because there is no basis for concluding that the Zinke order would result in a change in the amount of coal production or associated impacts in the long term...there would be no difference in cumulative (greenhouse gas) emissions.”

Environmental groups that sued over Zinke's order said the government's analysis ignored the broader consequences of continuing the coal leasing program despite its contributions to climate change.

“The suggestion that mining more fossil fuels from our nation’s public lands is not significant would be a joke if it weren’t so sad,” said Jenny Harbine with Earthjustice, which is representing environmental groups and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe in a lawsuit before Morris.

Companies have mined about 4 billion tons of coal from federal reserves in the past decade, contributing $10 billion to federal and state coffers through royalties and other payments.