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Coal mine expansions in Powder River Basin blocked by federal judge

The Bureau of Land Management failed to consider the long-term health impacts of burning up to 6 billion tons of coal mined over the next 20 years.

(CN) — A federal judge has blocked Bureau of Land Management proposals that would have allowed for the expansion of two coal mines in the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming, which would have lead to the production of up to 6 billion tons of coal over the next 20 years.

U.S. District Court Judge Brian Morris, a Barack Obama appointee, found that the BLM failed to consider a range of alternatives to the agency's resource management plans, specifically the alternative of no new coal mining on the publicly owned land. Morris also found BLM's environmental impacts statements didn't "appropriately consider" the long-term consequences of increased coal production: Though it considered the consequences in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, it did not consider the impacts of other "emissions related to the combustion of coal, such as particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and toxic pollutants such as mercury and lead."

The Barack Obama-era BLM first approved the management plans in 2015, and a number of environmental groups sued. In 2018, Judge Morris ordered the Donald Trump-era BLM to revise the management plans, taking into account the downstream environmental impacts of coal mining and combustion. The same plaintiffs sued over the revisions, which were defended in court by the Biden administration.

"The BLM is rudderless," said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs. "It’s stuck in its old culture, and it's lacking any clear leadership from the Biden administration on climate. It’s absolutely absurd that as the West burns and the Colorado River dries up that we’re having to go to federal court to make the Biden administration even consider the climate damage from federal coal leasing."

A spokesperson for BLM declined to comment.

Morris ordered BLM to revise its environmental impact statements so as to consider no new coal leasing as an alternative, and "disclose the public health impacts, both climate and non-climate, of burning fossil fuels from the planning areas."

The plans could still be approved after the impact statements are revised. But Melissa Hornbein, a senior attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center who represented the plaintiffs, said the new statements will "give an accurate accounting of what the damage is going to be, and makes BLM provide that information to the public. I believe that there will be a lot less stomach for a decision that leads to tens of thousands of premature deaths."

Nearly half of all coal produced in the United States is mined on federally owned land leased to the mining companies.

Coal consumption in the U.S. is nearly half of what it was in 2000, a trend driven largely by power plants switching to natural gas, which has become cheaper and less environmentally harmful than coal.

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