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Ravell Call, Deseret News
A loader pushes coal at the Huntington Power Plant in Huntington on Tuesday, March 24, 2015. On Wednesday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke approved a $22 million coal lease for central Utah.

SALT LAKE CITY — Newly confirmed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke approved a $22 million coal lease for central Utah on Wednesday and made it clear his agency is in the "energy business."

The move by Zinke — his first official action impacting Utah's natural resources on federal lands — unlocks 56 million tons of recoverable coal in Sevier and Sanpete counties long sought by Bowie Resources to prolong the life of SUFCO, Utah's largest coal mine locally operated by Bowie's subsidiary, Canyon Fuel Co.

In other action that Zinke says signals a new focus on energy development on public lands where "appropriate," he appointed Mike Nedd as acting director of the national BLM.

Nedd was described as a career employee and was assistant director for energy, minerals and realty management, holding that position since 2007.

Zinke was blunt about the pivotal change.

"Let me make one thing clear, the Interior Department is in the energy business, and Mike is an energy guy who understands the balance we must strike when developing resources and creating jobs on our public lands. It is my hope that working together he will help identify areas where we can expand responsible mineral development while still conserving habitat and wildlife.”

Jeremy Nichols with WildEarth Guardians — one of the environmental groups that fought the Greens Hollow lease — called Zinke's decision a "travesty."

"I think what they are saying with this announcement is that they are not here to serve the American people. These are public resources, these are public lands. They are not the coal industry's...This shows that whatever the coal industry wants, it will get, no matter the cost," Nichols said.

Nathaniel Shoaff, an attorney with the Sierra Club, blasted the decision as well.

"Today Secretary of the Interior Zinke sold out Utah to please a single, out-of-state coal company. Despite low demand in the U.S. and international markets for the coal Utah is already mining, Zinke has now placed over 6,000 acres of public land in jeopardy," he said.

Zinke said the new lease will support nearly 1,700 mining and related jobs.

"The United States has more coal than any other nation on Earth, and we are lucky to be at a time in our history that we have the technology available to responsibly mine coal and return our land to equal or better quality after,” Zinke said.

“For many communities and tribes in Utah, Montana, New Mexico and other states across the West, coal on public lands has been both a boon and a missed opportunity. With the potential for thousands of jobs and millions in economic opportunity, the Interior Department is committed to balancing the development and conservation of these resources. The Greens Hollow lease sale is a sign of optimism for the Trump administration and the pro-energy and pro-growth economic policies to come,” he said.

The Greens Hollow Lease has been sought by the SUFCO mine in Salina Canyon since 2005. The tract is on land owned by the Forest Service, which issued a record of decision in 2015. The Bureau of Land Management manages the leases for the coal and issued its own approval at the same time.

Although the Interior Department issued a three-year moratorium on any new coal leases in January 2016, the decision did not apply to leases that had already gone through the environmental review process with a resulting decision.

Environmental groups that include the Sierra Club and the Grand Canyon Trust appealed the lease of the 6,175-acre tract last year, citing potential impacts to habitat for the imperiled greater sage grouse. The lease was finalized in a winning bid in January.

The lease is expected to extend the life of the mine for nearly nine years. The SUFCO mine is one of the longest, continuously running longwall mines in the country.