Coal: The Biggest Corporate Bailout of All (Part 2 of 3)

The American people are missing out on a lot more than billions of dollars in lost revenue from the sale of our mineral resources to international coal conglomerates like Arch, Peabody and Rio Tinto. The Federal Coal Leasing Amendments Act would have created greater transparency and allowed for increased public participation in the land use planning process surrounding coal extraction. Unfortunately, the law was written with a loophole you could drive a dragline through.

The federally recognized coal production regions established in the early 1980s were:

  • The Southern Appalachian Region in northwestern Alabama;
  • The Fort Union Region of eastern Montana and western North Dakota;
  • The Green River-Hams Fork Region of northwestern Colorado and southern Wyoming;
  • The Powder River Region of northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana;
  • The San Juan Region of northwestern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado; and
  • The Uinta-Southwestern Utah Region of eastern Utah and western Colorado.

These coal production regions were decertified in 1987, 1988, 1988, 1990, 1988, and 1987, respectively. Those who are familiar with these areas will know that coal production continues at a furious pace, growing significantly in the last two decades. So why the decertification?

BLM’s swift and largely unexamined decision to decertify all federal coal production regions by the end of the 1980s relied on the following boilerplate language in many decertification notices:

“The expected benefits of operating in the lease-by-application mode are a substantial savings in administrative costs to both the Federal Government and the States …, while retaining a responsive leasing process for the coal industry. No additional social, economic, or environmental impacts are anticipated as a result of this change in the method of leasing. The … Regional Coal Team will participate in coal lease consideration in the lease-by-application mode.”

There is no mention of any National Environmental Policy Act or other environmental impact analysis of the decertification decisions. The “administrative costs” were those incurred in the land use planning and regional coal lease sale planning processes. In one example, BLM justified its decision to decertify the Powder River federal coal production region, the largest coal production region in the country, by saying that although there was increasing interest in the 1980s in expanding existing mines, there was little interest in opening new mines and therefore little demand for a new regional coal sale as envisioned in the coal production region planning process.

According to background language in a 1999 Federal Register notice, “BLM decertified the Federal coal production regions because we do not believe the demand for new Federal coal leases is sufficient to justify regional coal leasing at this time.” The operative word in these explanatory sentences is new.  Applications for expansions of existing PRB mines have boomed since the decertification and millions of additional tons of federal coal have been extracted via the lease by application process, with less procedural review than originally required by FCLAA or anticipated in the programmatic EIS.

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