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Federal coal sales in Powder River Basin draw suit

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) -- Citing worries over climate change, two environmental groups announced Thursday that they hope to derail government plans to sell leases on 2 billion tons of coal near a pair of major Wyoming mines.

The Sierra Club and Wild Earth Guardians say mining and burning coal from the federal leases would release huge amounts of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, exacerbating climate change.

The groups filed a lawsuit Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., that targets four recent and proposed coal lease sales in the Powder River Basin. That's an area of Montana and Wyoming that produces more coal than any other region of the country.

The Bureau of Land Management leases are near two of the largest coal mines in the world — Arch Coal's Black Thunder mine and Peabody Energy's North Antelope Rochelle mine.

"What we're seeking is for these leases to be overturned," said Jeremy Nichols with Wild Earth Guardians. "It's buyer beware at this point."

The BLM addressed climate change issues in its decision to sell the coal leases, but said it was not the agency's place to regulate emissions from burning the fuel.

"We recognize that it's going to be burned; we just don't know where it's going to be burned," BLM spokeswoman Beverly Gorny said.

The agency also said the leases "would not result in the creation of new sources of human-caused GHG (greenhouse gas) and mercury emissions" because even if the coal was not mined, power plants would simply turn to other mines to get the coal they need.

One of the four leases, known as the South Hilight coal field, already has been sold to Arch. Mining on the affected property has not begun.

Another sale — the South Porcupine tracts near the North Antelope mine — is scheduled for May 17, Gorny said. Peabody subsidiary BTU Western Resources bid $361 million on the 401-million-ton tracts last year, but that was rejected by the BLM as too low.

A sale date for the two other leases has not been set.