Judge taps brakes on Utah coal mine expansion, orders climate change analysis

Plan for Alton operation in Kane County now will be reviewed under a more eco-friendly Biden administration

Ray Bloxham | Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance Utah's Coal Hollow strip mine near Alton is expanding onto federal coal adjacent to its depleted private leases. A federal judge on Wednesday ordered the BLM to conduct further analysis on the federal lease’s potential climate impacts after concluding the Trump administration failed to do an adequate job.

A federal judge has complicated the ongoing expansion of Utah’s only coal strip mine after ruling the environmental analysis of its underlying federal lease, completed by the industry-friendly Trump administration, failed to adequately address the project’s climate impacts.

Alton Coal Development has long sought to lease 3,600 acres of federal land in Kane County to keep its Coal Hollow Mine, outside the town of Alton, in production after depleting its old private leases.

Wednesday’s ruling by U.S. District Judge David Barlow does not vacate Alton’s federal lease, issued for 2,100 acres in 2018, but it does instruct the Bureau of Land Management to conduct additional environmental analysis. While upholding parts of the BLM’s analysis, Barlow faulted the agency for touting the strip mine’s economic impact without also examining what carbon pollution is doing to global climate systems.

“There are multiple pages laying out the significant economic benefits in the ‘socioeconomics’ subsection, but no discussion there at all about the socioeconomic costs from GHGs [greenhouse gas emissions] and climate change,” the Salt Lake City-based judge wrote. “The socioeconomics section may not lay out the economic benefits from the proposal without analyzing the socioeconomic costs of GHGs together with [emphasis appears in ruling] climate change.”

Barlow’s ruling allows Alton to continue developing the contested lease, which sits between its two mined-out private leases south of the ranching town on the western edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. Straddling Kanab Creek, the lease area is about 8 miles west of Bryce Canyon National Park’s Rainbow Point.

The new review now will be conducted by a Biden administration that is far more committed to reducing the emissions that are changing the climate.

“The federal government has long sold off the American public’s coal reserves by telling a one-sided story about making money while ignoring the severe climate-change costs,” said Aaron Paul, a staff attorney with the Grand Canyon Trust. “The BLM can justifiably — and should — make the decision to deny this lease now that it’s back in their hands.”

Joining the trust in the suit were the National Parks Conservation Association, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Sierra Club, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and WildEarth Guardians.

“It’s a colossally bad idea,” said NRDC attorney Ann Alexander. “This a good opportunity to rethink this and do it right.”

The groups asked the court to vacate the lease, but the judge declined to go that far, citing the disruption such a move would have on mine operations.

The mine’s past, present and future

In 2018, after a decade of environmental reviews, Alton bought the federal lease for $12.3 million to be paid in five annual installments

If the lease were vacated, the mine would have had to cease production and lay off 32 miners, according to a declaration filed last year by Alton Manager Robert Nead. The mine sends about 80 truckloads of coal a day to Utah power plants.

The mine “has virtually exhausted the minable private reserves and future operations at the Coal Hollow Mine are dependent on the development of federal coal reserves from the lease,” the executive wrote. The state approved Alton’s mine expansion onto the first 43 acres of the federal lease two years ago and has received a $13 million reclamation bond from the company, according to the declaration.

The mine has been producing about 250,000 tons in recent years, but annual production is expected to grow to 2 million tons on the federal lease. Coal from the expanded mine would go mostly to the Intermountain Power Plant outside Delta. That plant plans to transition to natural gas in four years, leaving exports to Japan and other Asian countries as the most likely market for Alton coal in the future.

Utah officials intervened in the suit on the BLM’s side, asserting the expanded mine would directly employ 160 people, mostly from Garfield and Kane counties, with a payroll of $6.65 million, or $107 million over the life of the lease.

“Further, coal mining operations would generate 240 to 480 indirect jobs in the local economy relating to the wholesale and retail trade, local government, and service sectors, including employment opportunities in Iron County’s Cedar City area in mining-related services such as fuel, equipment purchases and repairs, food and retail,” the state wrote in its motion to intervene.

The value of the recovered coal would be $1.1 billion, resulting in $66 million in royalties to the state, the filing said. Utah’s share of federal mineral royalties and lease payments goes primarily to the state’s Permanent Community Impact Fund and the Department of Transportation.

The state’s filing doesn’t mention Alton’s history of delinquency paying local property taxes and violations of its mine permit.

How the environmental analysis fell short

The Trump administration issued the lease in 2018, triggering the suit from the groups upset that the BLM’s review failed to fully explore the impacts associated with burning the 30 million tons of coal the lease was expected to yield.

Their suit alleged the BLM’s review violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by ignoring how greenhouse gas emissions would contribute to climate change and refusing to address the “social costs” of carbon pollution. They also faulted the BLM for not considering the cumulative impacts form various federal mining projects and for downplaying mercury emissions associated with burning coal.

The judge agreed the project’s environmental impact statement failed to present its information and analysis regarding climate impacts in a way that gave the public much confidence that the BLM complied with NEPA. Barlow rebuffed some of the environmentalists’ points, but, in the end, he concurred that the BLM’s analysis failed to take a “hard look” at the lease’s potential impacts, as required by law.

Barlow did rule that the BLM’s analysis of mercury emissions was adequate. For years, the mine’s proximity to Bryce Canyon has been a key argument against its expansion, but the famous destination was not mentioned once in Wednesday’s 22-page ruling.