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Federal officials have finalized a 55 million-ton coal lease in a deal that ensures continued operations of Utah's oldest and most productive coal mine, a move heralded as a sign of the Trump administration's pro-energy policies to come.
The owner of the Sufco mine in Sanpete and Sevier counties delivered the winning bid of nearly $23 million last January in a process billed as competitive even though no other bids were submitted on the 6,175-acre Greens Hollow tract under the Fishlake and Manti-La Sal national forests.
"The United States has more coal than any other nation on Earth, and we are lucky to be at a time in our history that we have the technology available to responsibly mine coal and return our land to equal or better quality after," Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in a statement. "For many communities and tribes in Utah, Montana, New Mexico and other states across the West, coal on public lands has been both a boon and a missed opportunity. With the potential for thousands of jobs and millions in economic opportunity, the Interior Department is committed to balancing the development and conservation of these resources."
Environmental groups blasted the lease, issued by the Bureau of Land Management, as a sweetheart deal that cheats taxpayers who own the coal and furthers the world's climate crises by releasing millions of tons of greenhouse gases once the coal is mined and burned. WildEarth Guardians' administrative appeal is still pending.
"The validity of the leases hasn't been resolved yet. It is unfortunate BLM is moving forward," said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth's energy policy director. "They are bending over backwards for the coal industry like never before."
Also Wednesday, Zinke named a career BLM manager to succeed director Neil Kornze in an acting capacity. The appointment of Michael Nedd, the agency's assistant director for energy, minerals and realty management, was meant to signal Zinke's "focus on creating responsible energy jobs on public lands where appropriate."
In the coming days, the Trump administration is expected to make good on a campaign promise of lifting an Obama-era moratorium on coal leasing, which had been imposed while the Interior Department reforms the federal coal program to ensure the public receives a fair return on any mining on public lands.
Greens Hollow is one of four major federal coal leases in the pipeline in Utah, including one near Bryce Canyon National Park needed to keep Alton's Coal Hollow mine going.
Canyon Fuels Co., now owned by Bowie Resource Partners, proposed the Greens Hollow lease a decade ago so it's Sufco mine could continue its underground longwall operations, extracting high-Btu, low-sulfur coal. This lease is expected to return $194 million in royalties and taxes. Sufco is under contract to supply PacifiCorp's nearby Hunter and Huntington power plants through 2020.
While the lease could keep Sufco's 600 miners employed and was endorsed by four neighboring counties, Nichols questioned whether it would be good for the landscape, the planet or the treasury.
"The BLM continues to turn its back on the climate consequences of issuing coal leases," he said. "Greens Hollow coal is directly under priority habitat for sage course. To do an underground mine, they have to put in ventilation shafts and build roads and power lines."
The Interior Board of Land Appeals denied his group's request for a stay while it considers the appeal.