CHEYENNE, Wyo. – The federal government cleared the way for the expansion of one of the nation’s biggest coal mines Thursday over the concerns of environmentalists who said the coal could contribute to climate change.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management approved the sale of coal reserves in the Powder River Basin next to Cloud Peak Energy’s Antelope mine, which is the nation’s fifth most productive coal mine and yielded nearly 36 million tons in 2008. Cloud Peak Energy Inc. wants to mine an additional 430 million tons of coal reserves at the surface mine.
The BLM expects to offer 410 million tons of coal in two sales later this year, said Cindy Wertz, a spokeswoman in the agency’s state headquarters in Cheyenne.
Groups questioning the Antelope mine expansion included the Sierra Club, WildEarth Guardians, Defenders of Wildlife, Clean Energy Action and the Powder River Basin Resource Council. All said the coal would contribute to climate change once burned.
Options for limiting greenhouse emissions are better evaluated at power plants than at coal mines, wrote BLM officials in the record of decision for the Antelope mine.
It’s disappointing but not surprising that the BLM didn’t address climate concerns, such as by reducing the reserves to be offered for sale, said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians.
“We’re not just talking about saying no and shutting things down tomorrow. It seems like there are some reasonable steps they could do right now,” Nichols said.
He said his group likely will appeal.
BLM officials who worked on the decision document weren’t available for comment Thursday. A Cloud Peak Energy spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The BLM received an unusually large number of comments questioning the mine expansion — more than 300. The vast majority, 265, were form e-mails. Two e-mails expressed support for the mine expansion, the BLM said.
Environmentalists also have raised climate change concerns with several other upcoming mine expansions in the basin, home to the 10 most productive coal mines in the U.S.
This was the first expansion out of that group to receive final approval.
“It definitely shows the direction BLM wants to head here with all these coal mine expansions,” said Brad Mohrmann, associate regional representative for the Sierra Club in Sheridan.
The BLM last approved a Powder River Basin coal mine expansion in 2007. Antelope Coal Company, a Rio Tinto subsidiary before Rio Tinto spun off Cloud Peak Energy, applied to expand the Antelope mine 2005.
The Powder River Basin is the most productive coal region in the United States. The region’s 10 mines together produced almost 429 million tons of coal in 2008, more than a third of the U.S. total that year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
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