BILLINGS, Mont. — An Obama administration move to overhaul coal sales from public lands will be put to its first test this week as companies seek to advance two major mining projects in the Western U.S.

Cloud Peak Energy and Lighthouse Resources Inc. want to mine a combined 644 million tons of coal from government-controlled reserves in Montana and Wyoming.

Federal and state officials meet Wednesday in Casper, Wyoming, to consider the requests and recommend whether the U.S. Interior Department should continue to process them.

The meeting comes less than two weeks after Interior Secretary Sally Jewell ordered a moratorium on the government’s $1 billion-a-year coal leasing program to address climate change and ensure taxpayers are not getting shortchanged.

The suspension could block 28 applications involving more than 1.3 billion tons of coal, according to an Associated Press review of leasing information provided by federal officials.

The governors of Montana and Wyoming strongly opposed the administration’s move, which includes a review period expected to last at least three years. The states hold two of the five votes on the Powder River Regional Coal Team, the panel considering the latest applications.

The panel is not bound by specific criteria in its consideration of the projects. It has the latitude to reject the applications based on current low prices for coal that could result in less government revenue, said Kristen Lenhardt, a spokesman for the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management.

Coal industry opponents urged rejection of the mining projects. That would demonstrate the federal government is sincere in its desire to overhaul coal sales and reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of the fuel, those opponents said.

“We view our job as making sure the reforms keep the coal in the ground. Preferably sooner rather than later,” said Jeremy Nichols with the group WildEarth Guardians.

Since President Obama took office in 2009, Interior’s Bureau of Land Management has sold 2.2 billion tons of federal coal, the AP found. All of those sales were in Western states, where companies acquired mining rights from the government in most cases for less than $1 per ton.


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