AG Becerra Condemns BLM’s Rushed Environmental Review of Federal Coal Leasing Program

SACRAMENTO, June 11, 2019 – California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, along with the Attorneys General of New Mexico, New York, and Washington, filed a comment letter to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The letter responds to BLM’s draft environmental assessment of the agency’s federal coal leasing program. BLM issued the assessment in response to a district court order finding that former Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and BLM had failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when they lifted a moratorium on federal coal leasing. Following the decision, BLM hastily prepared a deficient draft environmental analysis, and gave the public only 19 days to provide comment. In their comment letter, the state coalition calls on the agency to immediately withdraw its limited environmental assessment and prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) that considers the full impact of the program, as required by NEPA.

“A court has already ruled that Secretary Zinke and BLM violated the law when they failed to comply with NEPA when lifting the moratorium on federal leasing of coal deposits,” said Attorney General Becerra. “BLM’s response was to issue an assessment that was rushed, and it shows. We demand that BLM do their job and fully analyze the program’s environmental and public health impacts, as required by the law.”

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BLM manages coal leasing on approximately 570 million acres of federal land. The moratorium, ordered in 2016 under the Obama Administration, halted new leases on coal mined from federal lands until the health and environmental impacts of the program and its contribution to climate change could be further analyzed. Since the program was last reviewed in 1979, BLM has received ample criticism for its management of the program, including its failure to ensure mining companies pay fair market value for profits from federal coal. In the last 40 years, scientific understanding of climate change has increased and the need to address the climate crisis has become more pressing.

However, in March 2017, just two months after BLM began preparing a new EIS to analyze the potential modernization of the federal coal program, former Secretary Zinke canceled the plan and lifted the moratorium on new leases. The states challenged this action, and a federal judge in the U.S. District Court in the District of Montana ruled that the failure to conduct any environmental review prior to lifting the moratorium was unlawful.

In the letter submitted today, the states argue that rather than comply with the court order, BLM makes zero effort to examine the full environmental impacts of the federal coal program. Instead BLM’s draft assessment conducts substandard analysis, considers a limited range of issues, and ignores the vast majority of the program’s impacts. In addition, the draft assessment fails to consider reasonable alternatives to lifting the moratorium, and ignores its own prior recommendations and research.

A copy of the letter is available here.