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The fate of a major sale of federal coal will be decided in court as environmentalists attack the Bureau of Land Management's approval of a lease on the 2,692-acre Flat Canyon coal tract.
The Skyline coal mine needs the lease to keep operating in Sanpete County. Its owner, Bowie Resource Partners, last June submitted the only bid of $17.2 million to access 42 million tons of recoverable coal under land administered by the Manti-La Sal National Forest.
WildEarth Guardians filed suit last week in U.S. District Court in Denver to block the sale, arguing that the BLM approved the lease based on a 13-year-old environmental review that failed to account for climate impacts and other concerns that have arisen since the project was first approved.
"We need to keep coal in the ground, but we can't move in that direction if the Interior Department is turning its back on climate implications of burning coal," said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth's energy policy director. "They have to make a meaningful determination if this is best course of action."
The BLM does not comment on matters under litigation, but the agency has claimed in the past that fossil fuels' greenhouse gas emissions are beyond the scope of the environmental analyses it conducts on energy development.
Bowie's bid, which translates into 41 cents per ton, underwent a review by a BLM panel to ensure the price meets "fair market value." This coal lease, which was issued July 31, is also subject to annual rent of $3 an acre, plus an $8-a-ton royalty on all production.
Flat Canyon is one of four big federal coal leases in contention in Utah, all of which environmental groups oppose. The most controversial is the proposed expansion of the Coal Hollow mine near Alton. Utah's only strip mine hopes to tap 45 million tons of federal coal about 10 miles west of Bryce Canyon National Park.
The others are the Greens Hollow tract near Bowie's Sufco mine, Utah's most productive, and Long Canyon near Scofield.
Reviews of these other proposals, required under the National Environmental Policy Act, remain active, while the analysis for Flat Canyon was completed back in 2002. Since then, however, the feds have tightened emissions standards associated with power generation, new species are becoming imperiled and Utah coal operators have turned to Asian markets in the face of plummeting domestic demand.
None of those factors were considered in the BLM's Environmental Impact Statement of the Flat Canyon lease, according to Nichols.
"We think BLM should consider how coal would impact public health," he said. "Interior can't be approving coal leases like it was 2002."
The Forest Service reviewed the old analysis and this year declared it sufficient to meet the requirements of federal law.
While the future of coal remains in doubt, Utah state officials continue to support coal mining, seen as a pillar of the state's rural economy. Utah mines are now looking oversees markets as California utilities dump coal in favor of cleaner energy sources.
The Utah Community Impact Board recently authorized a $53 million loan to Sanpete and three other coal-producing counties to invest in a deep-water bulk-freight export terminal under development in Oakland, Calif.