SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Trump administration on Thursday announced the approval of two coal mining projects in southern Utah, including one nestled between two national parks in the state's red rock region.
The U.S. Department of the Interior announced the mining projects in a news release Thursday, declaring "the war on coal is over," touting new jobs the projects will create and saying they will further the administration's goal of "energy dominance."
A $12 million project to expand a mine run by Alton Coal Development LLC will produce an estimated 2 million tons of coal each year on land about 10 miles (16 kilometers) west of Bryce Canyon National Park and about 25 miles (40 kilometers) northeast of Zion National Park.
The mine is near the original boundaries of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, but it is not in lands cut from the monument in 2017 by Trump. So far, no coal mining has been done on those lands, according to state officials.
The other project was for lease modifications at a Sufco mine in Utah's Sevier County in the central part of the state, which the agency says will extend the mine's life by five years. The mine produces about 5 million tons of coal per year and has been in operation since 1941.
"American coal jobs matter," said acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in the news release. "By approving these projects today, we will ensure that these mines are operational for years to come, providing well-paying jobs and affordable energy to the people of Utah."
The Trump administration's pro-coal policies to date have failed to stop the industry's ongoing slide, as electric utilities across the U.S. continue to turn to cheaper and cleaner alternatives such as natural gas, solar and wind. Coal production nationwide totaled about 750 million tons (680,400 kilograms) in 2018. That's a 3 percent drop from the prior year and down about 35 percent from the industry's 2008 peak.
"The Interior rhetoric is completely off base," said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy director at WildEarth Guardians. "There's no war on coal. It's just coal's inability to compete with cleaner and more affordable ways to generate electricity."
Nichols' organization has opposed the Sufco project all along and is considering a lawsuit to challenge the project, he said.
The approval to expand the Alton mine near the national parks could impact air quality, clear and dark night skies and pristine quiet for visitors who come from around the world, said Cory MacNulty, associate director for the National Parks Conservation Association's Southwest region. Additional trucks and equipment on the narrow highways used by tourists could also negatively impact their experience, she said.
"This in the heart of this really incredible protected landscape that draws millions of visitors to Utah," MacNulty said.
Republican members of Utah's congressional delegation expressed their support for the coal projects in the news release. U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney said "responsible energy development is important to Utah's energy industry and rural economies."
The Interior forecasts 100 new jobs at the Alton mine.
Editor's note: The story has been updated to say "a mine run by Alton Coal Development LLC will produce an estimated 2 million tons of coal each year,” instead of 2 tons, and the “Sufco mine produces about 5 million tons of coal” instead of 5 tons of coal.
Associated Press writer Matthew Brown in Billings, Montana, contributed to this report.
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