A Win for ‘Keep it in the Ground’

Coal mining in Wyoming will take a major hit as a result of a U.S. Department of Interior plan to cease future leasing of coal mines in the nation's most productive coal mining basin. The decision casts a spotlight on the presidential election.

3 minute read

June 4, 2024, 5:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid


Coal mining equipment and vehicles at coal mining site in Wyoming.

Coal mining site in Wyoming. | kat7213 / Adobe Stock

The Washington Post reported last month on what appeared to be a huge win for environmentalists fighting climate change from a supply-side perspective.

“In one of its biggest steps yet to keep fossil fuels in the ground, the Biden administration announced Thursday that it will end new coal leasing in the Powder River Basin, which produces nearly half the coal in the United States,” wrote Maxine Joselow on May 16.

The proposed ban on new coal leases comes in the form of a resource plan management amendment and final supplemental environmental impact statement [SEIS] issued on May 17 by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a division of the U.S. Department of Interior, for its Buffalo Field Office in Wyoming.

The ‘no leasing alternative’ applies to the ‘Coal Development Potential Area’ located within Campbell County, Wyoming, encompassing approximately 48 billion short tons of recoverable BLM-administered Federal coal, according to the Federal Register announcement of the BLM decision. The two other alternatives the BLM considered were ‘no action' and allowing a 'reduced level' of coal leasing within the area. The decision is nearly finalized.

Protest of the Proposed [Resource Management Plan] constitutes the final opportunity for administrative review of the proposed land use planning decisions prior to the BLM adopting an approved RMP.

Roots of the decision lie in presidential energy policies

The Biden administration's decision to end new coal leasing in the basin stems from an August 2, 2022 court ruling, Western Organization of Resource Councils et al v. United States Bureau of Land Management, by the United States District Court for the District of Montana," notes the BLM press release.

However, the roots of the successful lawsuit go back two presidential administrations, beginning in January 2016 when the Obama administration declared a ‘pause in new coal leasing,’ a follow-up to a pledge made in President Barack Obama's final state of the union address.

What happened next is instructive for those who follow federal energy policy and presidential politics as we enter the 2024 presidential campaign.

A year later, the Trump administration reversed the pause with President Donald Trump signing an executive order on March 28, 2017 that began the roll back of his predecessor's signature environmental rule, the Clean Power Plan, as noted in the post, “Coal Miners Are Going Back to Work...” The executive order also directed the Department of Interior “to lift any and all moratoria on Federal land coal leasing activities.”

Environmentalists and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe filed a lawsuit on May 17 that would lead to the 2022 court order from the federal district court in Montana.

“In the [2022] ruling, U.S. District Judge Brian Morris found that BLM failed to comply with a previous court order directing the agency to account for the environmental and human health impacts of burning publicly owned coal,” according to a Sierra Club press release issued May 16, 2024 celebrating the BLM decision.

What's next?

The BLM's decision to select Alternative A (the No Leasing Alternative) in its land use plan for the Powder River Basin last month reflected, in part, the Biden administration's climate agenda, particularly on reducing emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, albeit from a supply-side perspective.

A second Trump administration would no doubt reflect an energy security agenda, much like it did during his term as the 45th president, as noted in just a few posts below, in addition to those shown in “related” under this blog, from that period to reflect that focus:

The BLM decision, made under the leadership of Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, should serve as a reminder that America's future energy and environmental policies are very much on the ballot on November 5 in the United States and elsewhere this year.

Hat tip to Hari Lamba and Sierra Club California Energy-Climate Committee.


Irvin Dawid

Irvin Dawid discovered Planetizen when a classmate in an urban planning lab at San Jose State University shared it with him in 2003. When he left San Jose State that year, he took with him an interest in Planetizen, if not the master's degree in urban & regional planning.

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