Climate + Energy

Who Needs the Clean Power Plan

IMG_1161While the fossil fuel industry and their cronies in the Trump Administration are tearing apart rules to curb carbon pollution, the reality is we remain on track for major climate progress as we continue to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Powder River Basin of northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana, the largest coal producing region in the U.S. and an epicenter of climate destruction.

Here, despite the politics of the Trump Administration, coal companies are pulling back from plans to acquire new publicly owned coal leases and to expand their mines. Most recently, Arch Coal withdrew an application for a massive one billion ton coal lease that would have expanded the company’s Black Thunder mine, considered to be the largest coal mining complex in the world.

As one industry spokesman commented to the Casper Star Tribune:

“Frankly, given the general poverty of the industry and prevailing market conditions, as well as the fact that such bids usually cost hundreds of millions of dollars, I don’t expect any of these types of leases in the near future.”

– Cloud Peak Energy Spokesman, Richard Reavey

But it’s not only the economic weakness of the coal industry and the markets that continue to fuel a decline in the Powder River Basin, it’s also because of the work of WildEarth Guardians and other advocates to confront unchecked mining in this region.

For the last eight years, we’ve sought to slow and ultimately stop the flow of coal from the Powder River Basin and while we haven’t won completely yet, we’ve made incredible progress.

Consider that in 2009, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management was moving to sell 14 new coal leases that would have expanded some of the region’s largest mines. Back then, we released a report documenting the impending climate destruction that would result and since that time, we’ve brought forward relentless legal, political, and public pressure in an effort to slow or stall these leases.

As of today, only seven of these leases have actually been sold. The rest of the proposed leases, including some of the largest ones, have withered away as industry has recoiled from increased risks, uncertainty, and general chaos.

In total, while a little over 2.1 billion tons of coal has been sold in the Powder River Basin, nearly 3.1 billion tons has stayed in the ground. That’s the equivalent of preventing the release of more than 5.1 billion metric tons of carbon pollution. Put another way, that’s like shutting down 32 coal-fired power plants. 

Powder River Basin coal lease list

Powder River Basin coal leases under consideration by the the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management in 2009. Data from Bureau of Land Management.

What’s more, several of the leases that have been sold since 2009 are now facing reversal in light of a recent court ruling secured by WildEarth Guardians and the Sierra Club. As the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit held last month, the Bureau of Land Management illegally approved the North Hilight, South Hilight, North Porcupine, and South Porcupine coal leases, which together amount to nearly 2 billion tons of coal.

While the North Hilight lease hasn’t yet been sold and remains “on hold,” companies face the prospect of the other three leases being overturned completely, effectively wiping taking 1.5 billion tons of publicly owned coal out of industry’s hands and back into the hands of Americans.


The South Hilight coal lease area in the Powder River Basin.

To boot, WildEarth Guardians is still in federal court challenging Cloud Peak Energy’s mining of the West Antelope II coal leases.

All in all, the massive coal plans that industry had back in 2009 have mostly fizzled out. Today, the fizzling continues.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean the coal industry is throwing in the towel just yet.

Just recently, the Bureau of Land Management announced plans to approve yet another massive coal lease for Cloud Peak Energy to expand its Antelope mine.

Called the “West Antelope III” lease, the 441 million ton proposal comes even as Cloud Peak Energy itself has said that “brand new leases are unlikely at this time” and even gone so far as to call for climate action, saying:

“We have to accept that there are reasonable concerns about carbon dioxide and climate, and something has to be done about it. It’s a political reality, it’s a social reality, and it has to be dealt with.”

– Cloud Peak Energy Spokesman, Richard Reavey

Still, in spite of reality, Cloud Peak Energy seems to be gunning for a new coal lease in the Powder River Basin and the Trump Administration seems more than willing to oblige.

That’s where WildEarth Guardians comes in. Despite the momentum Cloud Peak is trying to build for a new lease under the pro-coal Trump Administration, the company still has to contend with us and contend they will.

In comments submitted last month, we chided the Bureau of Land Management for moving forward with reviewing the West Antelope III lease and highlighted the myriad ways the lease not only defies the public interest, but completely smothers it.

We even showed up in Wright, Wyoming to speak out at a public hearing where the only people to testify were those opposed to more coal leasing. Our message couldn’t have been more clear: it’s time to start keeping our publicly owned coal in the ground.


Trainload of coal leaving Cloud Peak’s Antelope mine.

There’s no doubt that federal oversight of publicly owned coal is a complete scam. Whether it’s the fact that the American public is forced to pay for the cost of industry’s climate pollution or the fact that the Bureau of Land Management is short-selling taxpayers by billions, it’s a corrupt disgrace.

In any case, we remain committed to derailing the West Antelope III coal lease just as we’ve sought to derail every other coal lease that’s been under consideration in the Powder River Basin. Given our success to date, the outlook for our climate.

Even with the loss of the Clean Power Plan, the future remains bright. While our United States government may not be leading on climate, we will and we will continue to keep our coal in the ground.