Will the Bureau of Land Management Blow the Obama Administration’s Cover — and Openly Declare War on Coal?

by Marlo Lewis on October 31, 2013

in Blog, Features

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“The Bureau of Land Management is scrapping its decision to lease more than 600 acres of land to Peabody Energy Corp,” reports Manuel Quiñones in today’s Greenwire (subscription required).  The article continues:

WildEarth Guardians, an environmental group active in fighting coal leases around the country, appealed BLM’s decision to the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA) in August.

But in a surprise move, instead of standing by its decision, based on an environmental assessment (EA) and finding of no significant impact (FONSI), BLM this month agreed with the need for more study. And yesterday IBLA judges agreed with sending the case back to BLM.

So the BLM will have to redo the EA to address what WildEarth Guardians, in their petition, call the “potentially significant indirect and cumulative impacts of the proposed lease.” What happens then?

My guess is the project will be approved. Team Obama is waging a war on coal but, for obvious political reasons, continues to deny it. BLM would totally blow the administration’s cover if, after revising the EA, it rejects the lease.

Clearly, WildEarth Guardians would like nothing better than for BLM to reject the lease on climate change grounds:

“We can’t possibly begin to tackle global warming by stripping more coal from the ground,” said WildEarth Guardians climate and energy chief Jeremy Nichols in response to the latest developments.

“With New Mexico bearing the brunt of climate change in the Southwest, including diminished rivers, extreme weather and soaring fire risks, every ton of coal kept in the ground is a ton of progress made toward safeguarding the people and places of the Southwest,” he said.

Although WildEarth Guardians’ petition insinuates that no federal land should ever again be leased for coal mining, because each new mining operation contributes to the “cumulative” climate impact of “all existing and future coal mining, coal combustion, and other resource extraction activities,” the group’s actual legal gripe with BLM is procedural:

In Bristlecone Alliance, 179 IBLA 51, 53-54 (2010), environmental groups appealed BLM’s approval of a right-of-way and land sale for construction of a coal-fired power plant on the basis that the agency had not adequately evaluated the impacts of the power plant on global climate change. However, BLM did address the indirect impacts of its land approvals by estimating the greenhouse gas emissions from the power plant and extrapolating mean global temperature increase from those emissions using a comparable analysis from the EPA. . . . The IBLA also found BLM’s analysis of cumulative impacts to climate adequate where the agency considered the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions from the future plant in “the context of other similar types of emissions” in the analysis area.

In short, according to the petition, BLM approval is lawful as long as the agency “adequately evaluates” climate impacts. The warming impact of BLM’s approval of the Peabody project will be as undetectably small — and as purely hypothetical — as that of any project approved by any federal agency in the past.

Since the lease sought by Peabody is in no sense precedent-setting and there’s no science indicating the incremental emissions would push the climate past some alleged “tipping point,” it is hard to imagine on what grounds BLM would reject the lease after redoing the analysis.

And if BLM does reject it? Then the administration will finally have issued an open declaration of war on coal.


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