Federal court invalidates Alton coal mine NEPA analysis: Southern Utah coal fight now in the hands of the Biden Administration

March 25, 2021: On March 25th, following a decade-long campaign, the federal District Court in Utah ruled in favor of the Sierra Club and our allies in a legal challenge seeking to protect the climate and iconic public lands from the Alton coal mine expansion in southern Utah. Located less than 10 miles from Bryce Canyon National Park, the proposed expansion has drawn more than 200,000 public comments in opposition -- more than any coal mine in U.S. history. 

The court held that when approving the expansion in 2018, the Trump Administration violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by (1) failing to adequately consider the cumulative climate impacts of the mine and other similar projects, and (2) touting the purported economic benefits of the 30-million ton expansion while ignoring the billions of dollars in climate damages caused by the project. 

Although the Trump Administration argued it had no way to measure climate damages in order to compare those to project benefits, a tool was and is available that would have allowed the government to do just that. The social cost of carbon, which was crafted by the federal government’s Interagency Working Group in 2010, estimates the economic damage caused by each incremental ton of carbon dioxide, methane, or nitrogen oxides emitted into the atmosphere, taking into account things like increased drought, wildfire, sea level rise, and decreased agricultural productivity. It’s useful in the NEPA process because it allows the public and decisionmakers to easily understand and contextualize the scale of a project’s climate impacts. In February, the Biden Administration revised the social cost of carbon to $51/ton. 

This means that the 72 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions that would result from the Alton expansion over a 16 year period would cause a staggering $3.6 billion in climate damage. Those harms, of course, are paid by the public -- not the mining company.  

In addition to its climate impacts, the expansion would likely eradicate the southernmost Greater Sage Grouse lek in North America and negatively impact the famously dark night skies in Bryce Canyon National Park. Because of these impacts, the expansion was once opposed by the National Park Service, the Fish & Wildlife Service, and the Hopi Tribe. The long-running fight over the proposed expansion has been extensively covered by the Salt Lake Tribune here, and here, and in this 2012 Sierra Magazine piece by Sierra Club’s own Paul Rauber, in which he described camping in Bryce Canyon National Park and looking up into a sea of 7,500 stars.

The ultimate decision on the mine now goes back to the Biden Administration for further analysis. As President Biden stated in a recent Executive Order:“[W]e face a climate crisis that threatens our people and communities, public health and economy …. We must listen to the science -- and Act …. we must combat the climate crisis with bold, progressive action that combines the full capacity of the Federal Government.” Sierra Club couldn’t agree more, and we look forward to taking our case to the Biden Administration to protect cherished public landscapes from the tail end of coal’s inevitable boom and bust cycle.

The Sierra Club worked closely with our allies Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Parks Conservation Association, Grand Canyon Trust, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and WildEarth Guardians. ELP’s work on this case was led by Aaron Isherwood and Nathaniel Shoaff, who represented the plaintiff conservation groups in court, with support from Violet Lehrer and Meral Basit.