We recently submitted an amicus brief in a case challenging two large coal leases approved by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The case, WildEarth Guardians v. U.S. Bureau of Land Management, is being heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit. We believe that BLM used an irrational assumption about coal supply and demand in its environmental impact statement for the Wright Area coal leases in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. Because of this flawed assumption, BLM’s presentation of the climate consequences of leasing, versus taking no action, is inaccurate and misleading, in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
These leases would generate more than 2 billion tons of low-cost coal from the two largest coal mines in the United States. The leases would produce up to 230 million tons of coal per year — more than twenty percent of the total U.S. coal used for electricity in 2010. BLM claims that the choice between approving the Wright Area lease extensions or rejecting them would have no effect on total greenhouse gas emissions from coal mining and coal combustion in the United States. The agency assumes that other coal mines would increase production to entirely replace all coal anticipated from these leases if the leases were rejected. This mistaken assumption runs counter to basic economic principles of supply and demand, as well as the empirical state of knowledge concerning the U.S. coal market. Approving the leases would flood the U.S. coal market with inexpensive Powder River Basin coal, leading to increased U.S. coal consumption and more greenhouse gas emissions.
BLM’s mistaken assumption departs from decades of proper analysis by BLM’s sister agencies. For more than 35 years in NEPA reviews of offshore oil and gas leasing decisions, the Department of the Interior has consistently understood that a decision not to lease land for energy production will affect that energy resource’s supply and price, and thus trigger consumers either to switch to energy substitutes or to conserve energy. Other agencies, such as the Surface Transportation Board, the Forest Service, the State Department, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, have also conducted the proper analysis in NEPA reviews of their energy management decisions. We believe that BLM’s analysis violates NEPA’s procedural mandate to rigorously evaluate all reasonable alternatives, including the No-Action Alternative, and that the lease approvals should be set aside.