Utah Counties Sue Federal Government Over Coal Lease Moratorium

Published January 17, 2017

A lawsuit filed November 30, 2016 by Kane and Garfield counties in Utah argues rural communities in Utah will be economically devastated by the loss of hundreds of jobs and the closing of crucial mining sites if the Obama administration’s moratorium of new coal leases on federal lands continues.

The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) and its secretary, Sally Jewell, as well as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and its director, Neil Kornze, are being sued by the two Utah counties and the Rural Utah Alliance, a nonprofit organization representing the concerns of rural Counties in Utah.

According to the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, the moratorium is an “act of unwarranted agency overkill.”

“In enforcing the Moratorium and bypassing substantial and immediate financial returns, the BLM is disregarding its statutory fiduciary duty, as set forth in the Mineral Leasing Act … to maximize economic recovery for coal mined on federal lands,” the counties said in their complaint.

Moratorium ‘Arbitrary and Capricious’

Coal mining is important to the rural economy of the two counties that filed suit, with mining jobs paying about double the average state wage.

Alton Coal Development, the company seeking leases to expand its operations onto 640 acres of federal land, may have to shut down if its expansion isn’t approved, the lawsuit notes. This could cost 150 jobs, a big hit economic hit the lightly populated area. By contrast, if the expansion is approved, nearly 500 jobs paying a total $6.5 million in wages and benefits during the first year would be created.

Peter Stirba, the attorney representing the counties in their federal lawsuit, told The Salt Lake Tribune the coal moratorium is a bad idea.

“Although the filing in court speaks for itself, the coal moratorium is an arbitrary and capricious decision by the secretary, which should be vacated as ill-considered and contrary to law,” Stirba told the Tribune.

“The moratorium will continue well into the foreseeable future,” the complaint reads, “leaving the future of the coal industry and the continued economic viability of coal-dependent rural communities in doubt.”

Dispute Could be Short-lived

The Obama administration issued the moratorium January 2015 as part of a review and potential overhaul of the coal leasing program managed by DOI. The administration said the moratorium was necessary to address climate change concerns and to examine whether American taxpayers are receiving a fair return.

With the incoming administration, the dispute could be short-lived. President-elect Donald Trump has said he will lift the moratorium, an action he could take on Jan. 20, the day Trump assumes office.

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.