By MEAD GRUVER
A federal appeals board has denied a request by environmental groups concerned about climate change to delay selling coal leases at two surface mines in northeast Wyoming's Powder River Basin.
Sale of the leases next to Foundation Coal's Belle Ayr Mine and Peabody Group's Caballo Mine could allow the surface mines to expand.
Burning coal in power plants releases the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. The groups WildEarth Guardians, Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife sought the delay so the U.S. Bureau of Land Management could further review how leasing additional coal at the mines could affect the earth's climate.
The Interior Department Board of Land Appeals denied the request last Thursday. The panel held that the groups didn't show how immediate or irreparable harm would result from going ahead with the competitive lease sales as planned.
The groups continue to appeal the BLM's July lease decision. Two lawsuits WildEarth Guardians has filed are meanwhile moving ahead: One challenges another Wyoming coal lease, the other how the BLM goes about leasing coal in the Powder River Basin.
The appeals and lawsuits add uncertainty to an already sluggish process for leasing federal coal in Wyoming, said Marion Loomis, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association.
"We need those leases to go forward in a timely fashion. It's already a year behind and it was my hope we would see one or two of those leases come up yet this year," Loomis said Wednesday.
"According to BLM that's not going to happen, so it's going to be more delay under the best of circumstances."
The Powder River Basin produces more coal than any other U.S. region by far. The coal accounts for nearly 14 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions when it is burned in power plants, according to the BLM.
The Interior Board of Land Appeals ruling pointed out that the BLM considered climate change and concluded that if the coal weren't mined, other coal mines would meet demand and overall coal burning to generate electricity wouldn't decrease.
"We're scratching our heads going, 'Where is it going to come from?' This is 42 percent of the nation's coal," said Jeremy Nichols, with WildEarth Guardians. "To us, it says the BLM wants to punt. They want somebody else to deal with this problem."
Wyoming's congressional delegation and 33 other members of Congress asked Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in a September letter to strongly defend the federal government's coal leasing practices.