SALT LAKE CITY — As much as 75 million tons of Utah's recoverable coal sought by mining companies are now in question after a Friday decision by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to halt any new federal coal leases.

The U.S. Department of Interior said it is pushing the pause button on the federal coal program for three years in light of concerns raised by the Government Accountability Office, the agency's inspector general and members of the public.

At issue is royalty payments critics say need to be increased, environmental protections for streams that merit improvements and questions over administration of the program that ensures public health impacts are properly considered.

“Even as our nation transitions to cleaner energy sources, building on smart policies and progress already underway, we know that coal will continue to be an important domestic energy source in the years ahead,” Jewell said. “We haven’t undertaken a comprehensive review of the program in more than 30 years, and we have an obligation to current and future generations to ensure the federal coal program delivers a fair return to American taxpayers and takes into account its impacts on climate change.”

Jewell stressed that the action does not impact any existing coal leases and under some circumstances, coal leases will continue for steel production.

"Given serious concerns raised about the federal coal program, we’re taking the prudent step to hit pause on approving significant new leases so that decisions about those leases can benefit from the recommendations that come out of the review,” Jewell said.

“During this time, companies can continue production activities on the large reserves of recoverable coal they have under lease, and we’ll make accommodations in the event of emergency circumstances to ensure this pause will have no material impact on the nation’s ability to meet its power generation needs," she said.

The decision will add further delays to the Alton coal mine expansion in southern Utah, where operators sought a 3,500-acre federal tract to mine as much as 45 million tons of coal.

Alton Coal initially sought the federal lease 12 years ago in a process that has wound through repeated environmental reviews, the latest of which went through a public comment process last summer, with the input now being finalized. The company will still push to have the federal environmental review process completed while the agency reviews the leasing program.

Another 87 million tons of Utah coal are sought for mining under applications pending with federal agencies. The Green Hollow tract for 57 million tons sought by Bowie Resources for the Sufco Mine is one operation potentially exempted from the moratorium, but the Williams Draw tract in Carbon County involving Utah American Energy will have to wait. That tract covered 30 million tons.

Multiple members of Utah's congressional delegation decried the decision and said it puts America's energy portfolio in jeopardy. Forty percent of the nation's coal comes from federal public lands.

"This unprecedented action will completely shut down coal leasing on federal lands and will disproportionately harm the poorest among us," said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources. "We should be putting our nation on the path of continued energy strength — not undermining our energy security at the bequest of radical environmentalists who wish to keep our resources under lock and key."

Added Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah: "This announcement is absurd. It is liberal fantasyland at its worst, and I will fight it every way I can.”

Multiple groups, however, praised the move and noted it was long overdue.

“The decision by the Interior Department to suspend new coal leasing on federal lands is a responsible step for our environment and for taxpayers," said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund. "We must begin taking into account the full cost of the pollution created when we extract and burn coal. The resources on federal lands belong to the American people, and must be managed in the best long term interest of the nation."'

Greg Zimmerman, policy director for the Center for Western Priorities, said Jewell is using her experience in the business world to conduct a much-needed review.

"Any CEO will tell you that one of the most important things a healthy business can do regularly is complete a strategic plan. But the federal coal program hasn’t benefited from strategic planning in over 30 years. While this temporary pause will have a negligible effect on current coal production, it will help to ensure American taxpayers are receiving a fair return from any new mining that occurs on national public lands.”


Twitter: amyjoi16