The US is proposing to end new federal leases in the country's largest coal region

BILLINGS, Mont. — The Biden administration on Thursday proposed an end to leasing new coal from federal reserves in the most productive coal-mining region in the U.S. as officials try to limit climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions from burning the fuel.

The Bureau of Land Management's proposal would affect millions of acres of federal lands and subsurface mineral reserves in the Powder River Basin region of Wyoming and Montana.

The immediate impact is likely to be limited because coal leases take many years to develop and demand has declined in recent years. But the proposal drew harsh criticism from Republicans in Congress just weeks after the Biden administration unveiled an air quality rule that could force many coal-fired power plants to reduce their pollution or shut down.

Thursday's proposal was made in response to a 2022 court order that said two federal land management plans drawn up during the Trump administration for the Powder River Basin did not adequately consider climate change and public health problems caused by burning coal.

In response, the Biden administration is rolling out plans that would halt further coal leasing in the region while preserving existing leases. The plans are subject to a 30-day public protest period before becoming final.

Federal officials said they expect coal mining to continue through existing leases through 2041 in Wyoming and through 2060 at a mine in Montana.

However, another mine in Montana, the Spring Creek Mine, could run out of federal coal reserves by 2035 — more than 50 years earlier than if leases were still being issued, according to a government analysis of the proposal.

Fourteen active coal mines in the region produced nearly 260 million short tons of coal in 2022 – about 40% of total U.S. production.

Yet mining volumes had already fallen by almost half over the past two decades as competition from renewable energy and cheap natural gas had closed many coal-fired power stations served by the mines.

Mark Fix, a rancher from southeastern Montana and member of the conservation group Northern Plains Resource Council, said the Biden administration's proposal was a “common sense plan” given the current state of the coal market.

“Coal companies in this region have been leasing coal for decades, and it is difficult to imagine they will find buyers this far into the future given competition from more affordable energy sources,” Fix said.

Wyoming's congressional delegation reacted with outrage, characterizing the proposal as an attack on domestic energy resources that will destroy coal jobs and cost the state millions in lost revenue.

“Wyoming has been targeted left and right with rule after rule passed by this administration,” said Republican U.S. Senator Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming. “Wyoming coal is needed now more than ever to power our nation and the world.”

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