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Utah’s largest coal producer surrenders leases to millions of tons of coal in legal settlement
The agreement ends a lawsuit filed in 2015 by WildEarth Guardians and the Grand Canyon Trust arguing that the federal government violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it issued a coal lease that year at the Skyline Mine in the Manti-La Sal National Forest in central Utah. In approving that lease, the federal government relied on an environmental analysis it had prepared in 2002 that said next to nothing about how burning coal causes climate change. Failing to update that analysis before issuing the lease violated federal law, the lawsuit asserted.
In the settlement agreement, Utah’s largest coal producer, Canyon Fuel Company, has agreed to give up leases at two other Utah mines that could have allowed between 9-40 million tons of coal to be recovered.
“This is a big step forward for keeping coal in the ground and protecting our climate,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “Today’s agreement gives President Biden a chance to live up to his promise to protect the climate from unchecked fossil fuel production and ensures meaningful action to prevent more climate pollution.”
The company has also promised to use a metric called the “social cost of greenhouse gases” to provide the federal government with dollar estimates of the climate-change expense that would result if the government were to allow the Skyline Mine to further expand. And the government committed in the agreement to take account of these estimates, and other information about climate change and air quality, when deciding whether to authorize that expansion.
“So far as I know, it’s unprecedented for a coal company to put a dollar figure on the climate-change cost of burning coal it wants to mine,” said Aaron Paul, a staff attorney for the Grand Canyon Trust. “I hope that act of self-reflection helps push the government and others in the fossil-fuel industry to reckon with how much our kids stand to pay if we keep burning fuels like coal.”
The social cost of greenhouse gases is a metric developed by scientists over a decade ago to assign a dollar cost to the damage from climate change likely to result from each ton of carbon dioxide emitted into the air. Using the latest figures, the estimated cost of burning 11 million tons of coal—the amount sought by the latest expansion of Skyline Mine—could run into the billions.
For years, the government has resisted using that metric to estimate the climate cost likely to result from allowing private companies to mine fossil fuels on public lands. While the Biden administration has taken steps to make better use of this metric, the settlement agreement reinforces that trend by ensuring that the social cost of greenhouse gases will be used in the government’s next leasing decision at the Skyline Mine.
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