U.S. concludes lifting of coal sales ban will speed up release of greenhouse gases — but says it won’t affect overall emissions

Billings, Mont. • The Trump administration’s decision to lift a moratorium on coal sales from public lands could hasten the release of more than 5 billion tons of greenhouse gases, but officials concluded Wednesday it would make little difference in overall U.S. climate emissions.

That conclusion from the Bureau of Land Management comes after a judge ruled last month the administration had failed to consider the environmental effects of resuming coal sales from public lands.

Sales were largely halted in 2016 under President Barack Obama over worries about climate change. But the moratorium was rescinded by then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke soon after President Donald Trump took office, fulfilling a campaign pledge from the Republican.

Critics said the Trump administration's contention that resuming sales would have negligible effects on the environment was absurd given the scope of the federal coal program.

About 40% of coal burned in the U.S. comes from federal leases, primarily in Western states including Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Montana and New Mexico. 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.

In Wednesday's report , the Bureau of Land Management analyzed applications from companies for coal leases totaling more than 2.5 billion tons of the fuel. Just over 5 billion tons of greenhouse gases would be produced by burning the fuel for electricity over the next 20 years, the agency said.

That’s equivalent to just over 1 % of greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector for 2017, according to the agency.

The agency's conclusion was based on the assumption that coal sales would have resumed as normal once the moratorium ended in 2019.

“The lifting of the coal leasing pause would not change the cumulative levels of [greenhouse gas] emissions resulting from coal leasing,” officials wrote.

Environmentalists who sued to reinstate the moratorium said that assumption was flawed. They also blasted officials for providing only a 15-day comment period.

"This seems to be both absurd and tremendously insulting to the public," said attorney Michael Saul with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of several groups that sued to block the moratorium. "Economics plus physics tell us that mining more cheap coal means burning more coal, which means more CO2 in the atmosphere and a hotter planet."

The attorneys general of California, New Mexico, New York and Washington — all Democrats — also had challenged Trump's move to end the moratorium.

In his April ruling, U.S. District Judge Brian Morris in Montana said federal officials wrongly avoided an environmental review of their action by describing it "as a mere policy shift." In so doing, officials ignored the environmental effects of selling huge volumes of coal from public lands, the judge said.

The office of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement that the Trump administration had rushed through its response to Morris' order without making any substantive changes. Attorneys for the state were prepared to return to the judge to seek full compliance with the ruling, Becerra's office said.

A spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, which intervened in the court cases on behalf of the Trump administration, declined to comment on Wednesday's report.

The industry group has said previously that it was the Obama administration that violated federal law, by imposing the moratorium without first analyzing its effects on the coal industry.

In February, Interior Department officials had announced a sale of coal leases on public lands in Utah by issuing a statement headlined “The War on Coal is Over.” They said the sale would not have been possible if the administration had not overturned the Obama-era moratorium.