Conservationists sue to force first broad review of federal coal-leasing program since 1979

BILLINGS, Mont. – Conservation groups sued the government Tuesday to force officials to undertake their first broad review of the federal coal-leasing program in decades and consider how burning the fuel contributes to climate change.

The lawsuit from Friends of the Earth and the Western Organization of Resource Councils is being paid for by the philanthropic foundation of Microsoft founder Paul Allen. It was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

The plaintiffs in the case said there hasn’t been a comprehensive review of the government’s coal program since 1979. That was before climate-changing greenhouse gases produced by burning coal emerged as a significant public concern.

More than 40 per cent of the roughly one billion tons of coal that is mined annually in the U.S. comes from beneath federal lands in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Montana and other Western states. About 475,000 acres were leased out to companies through the end of 2013.

The coal industry has defended the federal leasing program, which in 2012 brought in $876 million in royalties and almost $1.6 billion in bonus payments on lease sales, according to the Interior Department.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Richard Ayres said he expects the government to seek to dismiss Tuesday’s lawsuit before it can be decided on the merits. Otherwise, Ayres said, “they’re going to be in an extremely awkward position because they can’t argue the things we’re saying about global warming aren’t true.”

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has been reviewing its coal-leasing program since a government investigation last year revealed officials accepted below-market bids in some coal sales. Bureau of Land Management spokesman Jeff Krauss declined to comment on the lawsuit.

A representative of Allen’s foundation said in a statement that the Microsoft founder was supporting the lawsuit because the bureau has not responsibly managed its coal program.

“We can’t wait three more decades to understand the environmental impact of the federal coal leasing program,” said Dune Ives, co-manager of the Paul. G. Allen Family Foundation.