Groups to Interior Department: Put Clean Energy First

The Sierra Club, WildEarth Guardians and Defenders of Wildlife  filed suit for clean energy, challenging Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s and the Bureau of Land Management’s refusal to properly manage and plan coal leasing in the nation’s largest coal producing region.

“If we have any chance of confronting global warming in the U.S., we need to reform coal mining in the Powder River Basin,” said Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Program Director for WildEarth Guardians.  “This region is responsible for more carbon dioxide than any other single activity in the nation—for the sake of our communities, our economy, and our environment, we need to change course.”

Nearly 500,000,000 tons of coal is strip mined annually from the Powder River Basin of northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana, more than any other region in the nation.  Coal from the region is burned in more than 200 coal-fired power plants in more than 35 states, and is increasingly shipped overseas and burned in Asian coal-fired power plants.  

“The damage done by coal affects us all,” said Mary Anne Hitt, Director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.  “Not only do sportsmen suffer when Powder River Basin mining ruins outdoor opportunities in Montana and Wyoming, but burning coal produces all kinds of other chemicals linked to serious health problems.  In fact, coal pollution contributes to four of the five leading causes of death in the United States, and is responsible for an estimated 300,000 preventable birth defects each year.

“Coal is not clean and cannot be clean,” Hitt added.  “If President Obama’s Administration truly wants to pursue clean energy, they need to leave coal in the past where it belongs.” 

Today’s lawsuit comes on the heels of Secretary Salazar’s announcement that billions of tons of new coal will be leased in the Powder River Basin.  The suit challenges a Department of Interior decision that still refuses to certify the Powder River Basin as a coal production region.

“If decertification of the Powder River Basin ever made sense, it certainly doesn’t anymore,” said Adam Kron, attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. “The region produces more coal than anywhere else in the U.S., making it a major contributor to climate change. Unless Secretary Salazar and BLM acknowledge this reality, Interior truly has no vision for a clean energy future.”

A report prepared by WildEarth Guardians, entitled “UnderMining the Climate,” found that in the last twenty years, only three lease sales out of twenty-one have had more than one bidder.  The report also found that coal from the Powder River Basin is a root contributor to global warming in the U.S., every year releasing 800,000,000 metric tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide—more than thirteen percent of the nation’s total. 

Despite the problems with decertification, the Interior Department is pushing to offer twelve new coal leases in the Powder River Basin.  These leases would collectively allow mining of up to 5.8 billion tons of coal—as much coal as has been mined from the region in the last 20 years.  WildEarth Guardians’ report found that together, these proposals threaten to release more than 9.63 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide—more than the amount released every year by 1.7 billion passenger vehicles.

Today’s lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of D.C. 


  • The Powder River Basin, which currently produces over 40 percent of the nation’s coal—more than any other region—was first “decertified” as a coal producing region in 1990, due to then-declining coal production.  Since then, decertification has let Interior sidestep its standard leasing protocol, such as large-scale lease planning and the preparation of a regional analysis of the environmental impacts of coal mining, most notably climate change impacts.
  • Under this regime of reduced planning and analysis, Interior acts in a reactive rather than proactive mode, allowing existing coal companies to design their own lease boundaries that preclude competition, and then only analyzing the environmental impacts on a lease-by-lease basis.
  • Since the 1990 decertification of the Powder River Basin, coal production increased from 184 million tons in 1990 to 495.9 million tons in 2008, an increase of 170 percent and a more rapid rate of increase than other domestic coal production.
  • In November of 2009, WildEarth Guardians petitioned the Interior Secretary to recertify the Powder River Basin as a coal producing region.  This request was rejected in a decision issued on January 28, 2011, which prompted today’s lawsuit.  

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