New U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell received a Wyoming-centric letter on Monday, her first day overseeing federal lands.
Environmental groups, including Wyoming's own Powder River Basin Resource Council, implored the new secretary in a mass letter to halt leasing of federally-owned coal, specifically reserves in the Powder River Basin. The groups also asked for a comprehensive review of the country's coal leasing program.
"The Department of Interior must ensure that coal companies do not cheat U.S. taxpayers, existing mines do not endanger our air, water and wildlife and are properly reclaimed," the groups wrote. They also cited concern about whether coal-based greenhouse gas emissions align with the government's environmental priorities.
An Interior official confirmed that the department had received and was reviewing the letter Monday, but declined comment.
A representative of the Powder River Basin Resource Council said Monday that her group has for years backed the slowing of coal leasing to ensure better reclamation of mine sites.
"One of the main concerns we have is the Bureau of Land Management leasing new operations to miners that haven’t reclaimed existing mines," said Shannon Anderson, an organizer for the landowners group.
Anderson added that such a moratorium would have few effects on existing operations.
"It’s actually a fairly reasonable step in terms of these mining operations have multi-year reserves," she said."Nobody’s in threat of losing coal overnight if there’s a moratorium."
The director of the mining industry trade group in Wyoming called the letter "disappointing" and said a moratorium would be damaging to a major Wyoming industry.
"If they put a moratorium now it would be very damaging to the industry and the state," said Marion Loomis, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association. "What utility is going to make long-term plans if they think a coal mine wouldn’t be available when they need it?"
Others who signed the moratorium letter -- including anti-coal power groups such as the Sierra Club and Greenpeace -- cited a variety of reasons for backing a coal moratorium. Chief among the group's concerns were coal's contribution to pollution, which their letter said would outweigh any advances made by new environmental regulations.
"Interior is poised to approve 3.5 billion tons of new coal mining, which would be an unprecedented expansion of federal coal extraction," the groups wrote. "DOI cannot facilitate these massive extraction projects without undermining President Obama’s commitment to address climate change."
The groups also wrote Jewell of their concerns over whether coal producers are paying fair royalty rates for coal mined in the U.S. but sold overseas. A similar concern from two lawmakers -- Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska -- led the Interior Department to launch an investigation into royalties.
Anderson said she didn't know whether to expect Jewell to take any action on the group's request. She did say, however, that the council and others have had discussions with the department about reviewing the federal leasing program.
"It’s day No. 1 on the job" for Jewell, she said. "It's the next step for a new Secretary."