Utah Counties Fight Feds Over Coal Mining

Jonny Bonner

SALT LAKE CITY (CN) — An alliance of six Utah counties claims the secretary of the interior’s moratorium on federal coal leases was an “unwarranted agency overkill” that will lay waste the economy of rural Utah.

Kane and Garfield counties and the four other counties in the Rural Utah Alliance sued the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management on Wednesday in Federal Court.

The BLM implemented its “coal order” on Jan. 15. The alliance claims that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell “unilaterally executed Secretarial Order 3338” that day, “foregoing any meaningful consultation with any representatives of communities that would be negatively impacted by her actions.”

The so-called “moratorium” is not permanent; it is a “pause” on federal coal leasing until an environmental impact statement is completed, and also stops lease applications already submitted that have not received a Record of Decision.

Jewell ordered the BLM to prepare an environmental impact statement that analyzed potential leasing and management reforms in the federal coal program. The counties claim Jewell based her order on five “amorphous and unfocused” informal town hall-style meetings, or listening sessions, after which she concluded that “there was a need for a complete programmatic overhaul to address concerns over climate change, and whether American taxpayers receive a fair return on coal leases.”

The counties claim the National Environmental Policy Act requires a pre-moratorium impact statement.

“Secretary Jewell’s unilateral moratorium undermines the long-standing partnership between the BLM, the State of Utah, and local governments, like Kane and Garfield counties, which has contributed to the effective management of public lands within the state, including management of coal leasing,” the complaint states.

“The lack of meaningful involvement resulted in an act of unwarranted agency overkill. There is no evidence in the coal order that Secretary Jewell considered any alternative means to accomplish the objectives she set forth. This includes any alternatives to the moratorium or its scope.”

The counties claim that Jewell shunned “meaningful consultation” with representatives of communities that are economically dependent on coal.

The moratorium was issued while the Department of the Interior and BLM were facing a host of lawsuits seeking to overturn federal coal leases, including from nonparty WildEarth, which successfully reversed two BLM-approved projects.

The counties almost surely will get a hand from the incoming Trump administration. Donald Trump has promised to bring coal back.

The counties say Jewell ignored at least one “obvious” alternative: limiting the moratorium to lease applications filed after the coal order was issued.

Seventy percent of power in Utah is generated from coal mined in the state. The average price for electricity in the Beehive State is 8.7 cents per kilowatt hour, compared to 10.06 cents per kilowatt hour national average.

The state’s coal industry is largely supported through a BLM coal leasing program, and 83 percent of Utah coal comes from federal land.

The plaintiffs claim the moratorium will last “well into the foreseeable future,” leaving the economic viability of coal-dependent rural communities in doubt.

It “further ignores many key facts, previously recognized by the BLM, and other federal agencies, which make it clear that the moratorium is an arbitrary and unwarranted action not rationally related to accomplishing the goals of addressing climate change and ensuring a fair return to American taxpayers,” the counties say.

Working mines, including the Coal Hollow Mine in Kane County, will remain abandoned and unsafe, the plaintiffs say. Alton Coal Development, which runs the mine, sought to expand the project but its application was rejected.

Kane County, pop. 7,260, and Garfield County, pop. 5,083, are in southern Utah, near the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

County and federal representatives could not immediately be reached for comment late Thursday.

The counties seek an injunction for violation of the Administrative Procedure Act, and costs of suit.

They are represented by Peter Stirba, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The other counties in the alliance are Beaver, Carbon, Piute, and San Juan.