(CN) - Environmentalists across the West - led by Friends of the Earth and the Western Organization of Resource Councils - slapped the Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management with a lawsuit Monday claiming the agencies haven't done a comprehensive environmental review of the federal government's coal leasing program since 1979, long before climate change became a global menace.
The groups sued the Interior Department and Secretary Sally Jewell, and the Bureau of Land Management and its head Neil Kornze, in a D.C. federal court. The lawsuit is being underwritten by philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
According to the environmentalists' complaint, coal mined under the federal coal management program is one of the greatest single contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. About 14 percent of the nation's annual carbon dioxide emissions and 11 percent of the annual greenhouse gas emissions come from federally leased coal mining operations, the groups say.
BLM currently manages 309 existing coal mine leases across 10 states, accounting for 40 percent of all the coal mined in the United States, the environmentalists claim.
Yet despite an Environmental Protection Agency finding in 2010 that greenhouse gas emissions pose a danger to the earth - and a National Environmental Policy Act requirement that BLM issue regular impact findings any time environmental conditions change - the agency hasn't done a comprehensive impact analysis of the coal leasing program since 1979, the complaint states.
And science - particularly climate change science - has changed drastically since then, environmentalists point out.
"The 1979 report only briefly discussed the then-nascent science of the effects of greenhouse gas emissions and the federal coal management program's emissions," the complaint states. "This discussion, which comprises approximately one page of text, does not address the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from combustion of coal mined under federal leases, which far exceeds emissions resulting from mining activities."
Nearly all the coal mined under federal leases gets burned at power plants to generate electricity. And that combustion accounted for 23 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2012, the groups claim.
BLM has never updated its 1979 analysis to address climate change. The only supplement occurred in 1985 and did not even broach the topic, according to the groups.
Meanwhile, the agency approves new leases every year and modifies existing ones to include more acreage.
"While BLM conducts some level of NEPA analysis for individual coal lease proposals, such analysis does not, and cannot, substitute for the analysis of the effect of the federal coal management program on climate change, and the alternatives available to BLM, that would be contained in a programmatic environmental impact statement," the environmentalists say in their 66-page complaint.
The agencies are at odds with federal policy, according to Friends of the Earth climate and energy director Ben Schreiber.
"There is an inconsistency between President Obama's declared policy on global warming and the coal leasing policy of the BLM," Schreiber said. "The lawsuit is saying, under the law, the BLM must provide an updated programmatic environmental impact statement that examines the contribution of mining and combustion of BLM coal to climate change and consider alternative energy policy options that would help reduce global warming."
Dune Ives, co-manager of the Paul G. Allen Foundation, added that the coal being mined from federal land belongs to the American people.
"More than 40 percent of all the coal mined in the United States is owned by U.S. taxpayers, yet the BLM has not fulfilled its obligation to manage these resources responsibly," Ives said. "The American people should not have to go to court to get the government to do its job, but we need to do what's necessary to protect our lands for future generations. We are supporting this litigation because we can't wait three more decades to understand the environmental impact of the federal coal leasing program."
The groups seek a court declaration that BLM and the Interior Department violated NEPA by never addressing climate change, as well as an order to make the appropriate environmental analyses before any new lease is approved or an existing lease is modified.
They are represented by Richard Ayers, Jessica Olson and John Bernetich of the Ayers Law Group in Washington.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.