A federal court has ruled against a U.S. Interior Department plan to open more than 15 million acres of public land and mineral rights to fossil fuel extraction, concluding that the government failed to adequately consider how the oil, gas and coal development would affect the climate and other environmental resources.
The U.S. District Court decision Friday in Montana throws a new roadblock before the Trump administration's goal of expanding and accelerating fossil extraction from federal lands.
The case was filed in 2016 by a coalition of environmental groups over a plan by the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management to lease federally owned land in the Powder River Basin of eastern Montana and Wyoming. While the BLM plan included the possibility of oil and gas development in the area, the Powder River Basin is the country's largest coal producing region. About 40 percent of all the coal burned in the U.S. comes from the area, and it accounts for about 10 percent of the country's annual greenhouse gas emissions.
The plaintiffs contended that the fossil fuel development plans for the vast Miles City, Montana, and Buffalo, Wyoming, federal tracts violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failing to account fully for the damage the coal, oil and gas would do to the environment, including the climate.
The area holds about 10.2 billion tons of coal and the possibility of 18,000 new oil and gas wells, the plaintiffs estimated.
U.S. District Judge Brian Morris upheld the core assertion by the plaintiffs, although he ruled against other claims. Morris ordered the BLM "to conduct new coal screening and consider climate change impacts to make a reasoned decision on the amount of recoverable coal made available" in the Miles City and Buffalo areas.
The Montana decision is the latest setback courts have dealt to federal coal mining plans in the Powder River Basin for failing to account for damage to the climate. In August, a federal judge stopped Signal Peak Energy from expanding a 176 million-ton mine in central Montana because the Interior Department did not comprehensively account for climate impacts. A month later, a federal appeals court told BLM that it had to re-do its assessment of the climate consequences of four huge coal leases because they were economically "irrational."
Under Obama, Interior Was Rethinking Coal Leasing Program
At the end of the Obama administration, the Interior Department itself had begun to reconsider key aspects of the 40-year-old federal coal leasing program, nearly all of it in the Powder River Basin. Coal mining brought jobs to Wyoming and Montana. But it also drained the aquifers that communities and ranches relied on. Federal analyses of the program showed that taxpayers got far less in royalties than they should have, thanks to tax loopholes and lax leasing terms.
Just before Trump took office in January 2017, Obama Interior Secretary Sally Jewell released the results of a year-long coal leasing review. "Based on the thoughtful input we received through this extensive review, there is a need to modernize the federal coal program," she stated. "We have a responsibility to ensure the public ... get a fair return from the sale of America's coal, operate the program efficiently and in a way that meets the needs of our neighbors in coal communities, and minimize the impact coal production has on the planet that our children and grandchildren will inherit."
Jewell's successor, Ryan Zinke, reversed those steps: The results from the review of coal leasing were discarded, a moratorium on new leases lifted and a proposed rule to increase royalties rescinded.
'A Fundamental Disconnect'
The Interior Department's Office of the Solicitor declined to say if the Trump administration would appeal the decision. "The court upheld several aspects of the BLM's Resource Management Plans. For the claims found to be in noncompliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, the BLM is currently reviewing the court's decision to determine the appropriate next steps," the office said in an emailed statement.
The plaintiffs said the decision was an important step in getting the federal government to calculate more completely the consequences that increasing development of fossil fuels would have on the world's climate.
"The court rightly recognized the fundamental disconnect between the need to rein in carbon pollution and the way BLM has proposed to manage our public lands and minerals," said Western Environmental Law Center Attorney Kyle Tisdel, who represents the groups. "We hope BLM's second chance will lead to better action."