SALT LAKE CITY — Two Utah counties have filed a lawsuit challenging a federal halt to granting new coal leases, arguing the moratorium is blocking a mine expansion that could pump millions of dollars into the local economies.
The suit marks the first challenge to the moratorium ordered in January by the Obama administration, attorney Peter Stirba, who represents Kane and Garfield counties, said Monday. The counties claim the moratorium was an arbitrary move that could force the mine to close.
The halt is expected to last at least three years while the U.S. Department of the Interior weighs whether the fees charged to mining companies provide a fair return to taxpayers and reflect coal’s impact on the environment. President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to rescind the moratorium.
The leases were halted amid concerns about climate change and other issues linked to the $1 billion-a-year coal leasing program. There have been some limited exceptions to the moratorium, said Amanda Degroff, a spokeswoman for the Department of the Interior. She declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and New Mexico are among the states most impacted by the halt. More than 40 percent of U.S. coal production, or about 450 million tons a year, comes from public lands in those Western states.
Even before the moratorium, a weak market for coal in the U.S. and abroad slowed the push by companies seeking new reserves.
Coal is an important part of the economy in the two counties about 280 miles south of Salt Lake City. Mining jobs pay about double the average state wage, according to the lawsuit filed Nov. 30.
Alton Coal Development, the company seeking the leases, has a market for coal, but the private land they’re operating on now is nearly exhausted, Stirba said.
The company may have to shut down if an expansion onto public land isn’t approved, costing about 150 jobs — a big hit for the lightly populated area, the lawsuit states.
If the expansion is approved, it could create nearly 500 jobs paying a total $6.5 million in wages and benefits during the first year, court documents say.
Tom Sanzillo with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a group that promotes sustainable energy, said it was the first lawsuit of its kind he’s aware of.
If the Trump administration does try to overturn the moratorium, it could end up in a protracted political fight, he said.
Ashley Burke, a spokeswoman for the industry group National Mining Association, said it’s also not aware of any similar lawsuits, and it shares the concerns raised in the complaint.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.