Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment v. U.S. Bureau of Land Management, 528 F. Supp. 3d 1222 (D. Utah 2021)

Mining Coal mining

Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment v. U.S. Bureau of Land Management, 528 F. Supp. 3d 1222 (D. Utah 2021)
U.S. District Court

A coal mining company proposed to expand its operations onto more than 2,000 acres of land administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the state of Utah.  The BLM approved the lease application in 2018 after preparing an environmental impact statement.

The plaintiffs challenged BLM’s decision, alleging that the final environmental impact statement (FEIS) was deficient in three areas: 1) failing to address the indirect impacts of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions; 2) failing to evaluate the cumulative impacts of GHG emissions from other coal mining projects being considered by the BLM and other agencies within the Department of the Interior, and 3) failing to analyze the impact of mercury emissions resulting from combustion of coal mined at the site. Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment v. U.S. Bureau of Land Management, 528 F. Supp. 3d 1222, 1228 (D. Utah 2021)

In the FEIS, the BLM provided a quantitative and qualitative analysis of greenhouse gas emissions. The agency calculated the amount of GHG emissions from the project itself and projected that emissions from downstream combustion of coal mined at the site would produce 4.8 million tons of CO2 per year. Id., pp. 1228-1229. The agency also generally described the impacts of GHG emissions on the environment.  The court upheld this aspect of the FEIS, explaining:

BLM applied a “proxy methodology:” it calculated direct and downstream greenhouse gas emissions from the proposed action and then analyzed them within the context of national and global projections.

Id., p. 1230.  Where the BLM’s analysis fell short, however, was that the agency quantified the project’s socioeconomic benefits in terms of jobs, royalties, tax revenue and positive downstream economic impacts, but did not quantify the costs of GHG emissions. Id.  The plaintiffs argued that the BLM should have used the Social Cost of Carbon (SCC) to forecast the economic costs of the mining project. The BLM countered that it was not required to perform a cost-benefit analysis and that it adequately explained why it did not use the SCC.

The court deferred to the BLM’s decision not to use the SCC but nevertheless found the agency’s “treatment of GHGs and their costs is still problematic.” Id., p. 1231.  In particular, the court disagreed with the BLM’s decision to scatter key pieces of information about GHG emissions and climate change around the FEIS, rather than provide a holistic view:

These three sections, which should be working together to paint a clear picture for decisionmakers and the public of the impacts of the GHGs that will result from the project, instead end up being ships passing in the night.
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It is one thing for BLM to find that, as a matter of agency expertise, it should not use a particular tool to monetize the impacts from GHGs and climate change. But it is unacceptable for the information and analysis that is included on the topic to be spread out and disjointed in such a way that the public is unlikely to find the related pieces and put them together or to have confidence that the agency considered the interrelated qualitative and quantitative information as a whole.

Id., p. 1232.

Turning to the cumulative impacts discussion, the court considered whether the BLM evaluated the climate impact of the project’s direct and indirect GHG emissions combined with other current and reasonably foreseeable projects producing GHG emissions. The court observed that the agency did an adequate job of inventorying projects within a 2.85 million-acre area of southern Utah and describing the cumulative effects of these projects on a number of environmental, social, and cultural aspects. Id., p. 1234. The BLM failed, however, to “meaningfully describe and discuss relevant information regarding other present and reasonably foreseeable future GHG sources.” Id. The court declined to weigh in on the geographic scope of the BLM’s cumulative impacts analysis, concluding that the agency is owed deference on this decision.  Id.

Regarding mercury emissions, the court found that the BLM provided sufficient analysis in the FEIS and adequately explained why it could not perform a more detailed study of the impacts of burning the coal at a particular power plant. Id., pp. 1235-1236.

Based on the faults in the climate impact analysis, the court remanded the FEIS to the BLM for revision, declining to issue an order vacating the lease approval. Id., p. 1237.