Utah Counties Sue Federal Government to Halt ‘Illegal’ Coal Leasing Moratorium

Published December 27, 2016

Six Utah counties, comprising the Rural Utah Alliance, are suing the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Federal District Court to overturn a moratorium on federal coal leases the secretary of the interior issued in January 2016. The lawsuit, filed in late November, argues the moratorium was an “unwarranted agency overkill” that will decimate rural Utah counties. .

The six counties party to the lawsuit, Beaver, Carbon, Garfield, Kane, Piute, and San Juan counties, are asking the court to enjoin the moratorium for violating the Administrative Procedure Act, and to award the counties the costs involved in fighting the suit.

The BLM imposed its “coal order” on Jan. 15. The alliance says Interior Secretary Sally Jewell “unilaterally executed Secretarial Order 3338 … foregoing any meaningful consultation with any representatives of communities that would be negatively impacted by her actions.” The moratorium halts new or pending coal leases on federal lands until an environmental impact statement is completed.

The counties, which are economically dependent upon coal, claim DOI and the BLM violated the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act by unilaterally issuing the moratorium before carrying out a required pre-moratorium impact statement.

Utah, Counties, Depend on Coal

Coal provides the least expensive source of electric power. Seventy percent of the electric power generated in Utah comes from coal mined in the state, which is the prime factor average price for electricity in the Utah is 8.7 cents per kilowatt hour, compared to 10.06 cents per kilowatt hour national average.

Approximately 65 percent of Utah is federally owned resulting in the state’s coal industry being largely dependent upon the BLM coal leasing program, with 83 percent of the coal used to generate electric power in Utah coming from federal land.

Because the moratorium is open ended, with no date established to finalize the environmental impact statement, the counties claim the moratorium will last “well into the foreseeable future,” leaving the cornerstone of economic activity in the region’s coal-dependent rural communities in doubt.

According to the complaint, “Secretary Jewell’s unilateral moratorium undermines the long-standing partnership between the BLM, the State of Utah, and local governments, like Kane and Garfield counties, which has contributed to the effective management of public lands within the state, including management of coal leasing.” The complaint continues, “The lack of meaningful involvement resulted in an act of unwarranted agency overkill. There is no evidence in the coal order that Secretary Jewell considered any alternative means to accomplish the objectives she set forth. This includes any alternatives to the moratorium or its scope.”

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., ([email protected]) is the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.