Trouble in the PRB

Environmentalists dig deeper to fight big coal

  • A BNSF coal train from another mine passes the huge Antelope Mine in Wyoming's Powder River Basin

    Bill Hooper

In 1973, a group of ranchers met in a schoolhouse in Wright, Wyo., to discuss the future of the Powder River Basin. The vast prairie, which stretches from Wyoming's Big Horn Mountains to the South Dakota border and north into Montana, was experiencing its first big coal boom. And the scale of development envisioned in a 1971 federal study -- 42 new power plants in five Western states, most in Montana and Wyoming, and a slew of strip mines to feed them -- promised to transform the region.

"I wasn't anti-coal or anti-mining," says Ed Swartz, now 70, who was among the cattlemen at the schoolhouse. "But I want things done right."

So Swartz and his neighbors organized the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a watchdog group. The '71 study's vision was officially scrapped, but over the decades the basin has become the nation's top coal-producing region, providing about 40 percent of its supply last year. As development picked up, the Council pushed Wyoming to adopt strict air-quality standards to discourage rampant power plant construction, and was instrumental in passing the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, which included a provision to prevent mining companies from condemning ranches. It has insistently pressured state and federal officials to ensure that reclamation keeps pace with mining. More than 160,000 acres have been stripped over the years, but less than half have been reclaimed.

Outside of Wyoming and Montana, however, environmentalists -- distracted by the fight against mountaintop removal in the East and a wave of Bush-era coal-fired power plant proposals -- barely seemed to notice the rise of the Powder River Basin. Until recently, that is. Their crusade against new power plants, which collectively would have negated any other efforts to cut greenhouse emissions, has mostly succeeded. So now, a coalition of national groups is moving the climate fight down the supply chain, targeting the basin's mines in court for the first time. The Bureau of Land Management itself estimates that the mines are responsible for 13.9 percent of  U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.  The  lawsuits,  which  aim  to  stop the agency from selling 5.8 billion tons of federal coal, are part of an expanding effort to temper coal's reign over the power market and, with climate legislation still in limbo, to force greenhouse gas reductions in court.

This summer, the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and the Santa Fe-based group WildEarth Guardians asked the Department of Interior's Board of Land Appeals to make the BLM redo its environmental impact statements for two sets of leases in the basin because they didn't adequately account for the climate impacts of mining and burning coal. The coalition filed a separate lawsuit in federal court to stop the sale of 410 million tons of coal and to force the BLM to overhaul its leasing program as a whole. Individual coal-leasing decisions should be guided by a higher-level review of regional and national impacts, the groups say, just as wind, solar and geothermal leasing on public land are. Nor is the process truly competitive, because it allows coal companies to draw up their own leases. The coalition wants the BLM to cap leasing based on the potential environmental impacts, or require mining companies to mitigate those impacts.

"We are going after the heart of the beast," says Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. It's an untested legal approach. In 2008, environmentalists sued the U.S. Forest Service for permitting Colorado's West Elk coal mine to vent methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. That case, which targets more direct climate impacts than the Wyoming leases, is still unresolved.

Whatever the outcome of the Powder River Basin suits, though, industry observers say that if they delay sales long enough, they could hinder the mines' ability to deliver coal to market. That's because many mines will soon dig through their existing reserves and need a predictable flow of new coal to offer customers. "It's critical that these tracts come up for bid in a timely fashion," says Marion Loomis, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association. "We see a major bottleneck hitting us."

Activists are ratcheting up their fight against coal on other fronts, too, experimenting with ways to force old power plants to close ahead of schedule or substantially slash emissions. "Existing facilities need to be addressed or climate change will go off the charts," says Janette Brimmer, an Earthjustice lawyer. But that, she says, will be "much, much tougher" than fighting new proposals. Brimmer is one of the legal brains behind a case aimed at cleaning up or shutting down Washington's only coal-fired power plant, the TransAlta plant in Centralia, ahead of a state plan to close it in 2020 or later.  Her firm is using "a pretty novel argument" and an obscure state law to object to the plant's operating permit, which was reissued last year. Brimmer says the permit violates a law prohibiting emissions that harm public health or damage property.

These recent challenges are among a growing number of attempts to use the judicial system to mandate carbon cuts. Absent federal legislation, they'll likely grow in number and variety. "Litigation is not going to save the day here, but right now it's one way we can hold the line," says Nichols. "It's that adage of persistent pressure, persistently applied -- that's how the environmental movement has succeeded over the years."

See a sidebar to this story, "Coal reality check."

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