Environmental Review by Feds of Coal Lease Plan Passes Muster With Judge

About 730 million tons of coal were extracted from U.S. mines like this in 2016, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Approximately 40% of that was produced on federal lands.

(CN) — A federal judge in Montana ruled Friday that the Trump administration has adequately repaired its environmental analysis in a dispute over coal leases on public land.

U.S. District Judge Brian Morris, a Barack Obama appointee, ruled Friday that the U.S. Department of the Interior has fully remedied its failure to conduct a complete environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) before lifting a temporary pause on coal leasing for thousands of acres of public lands.

Friday’s ruling comes after a number of groups and states, including Citizens for Clean Energy, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and the state of California, sued the Trump administration in 2017 over its decision to open up public lands to coal leasing.

The groups specifically challenged a decision by then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke who, acting under an executive order signed by President Trump, lifted a moratorium on coal leasing on public lands enacted by the Obama administration. The Zinke order, issued just over two months into Trump’s presidency in March 2017, claimed that “the public interest is not served by halting the federal coal program for an extended time.”

Environmentalists claimed the Trump administration lifted the coal leasing pause without preparing an environmental impact statement on how the decision, and the larger federal coal program, would affect the environment.

They accused the Trump administration of reversing a previous administration’s decision without first offering the required environmental evaluation — a violation of NEPA.

“Before such NEPA compliance could be realized, however, on March 29, 2017, the secretary under the new Trump administration issued Secretarial Order 3348 reversing the prior administration’s decision, thus fulfilling President Trump’s political campaign promises to repeal the moratorium and increase our country’s reliance on coal,” the plaintiffs said in their complaint. “In doing so, the secretary and BLM have opened the door to a host of harmful environmental, health, and economic impacts from new leases that have never been fully evaluated under NEPA.”

In 2019, Morris found the Trump administration had failed to conduct a proper environmental analysis, prompting to the government to announce that it would provide an analysis that they claimed would address the legal problems pointed out by Morris.

During a hearing on the matter this month, however, the groups argued the government’s follow-up was still not satisfactory. They told Morris the environmental analysis published by the government did not fully satisfy its duty under NEPA, despite having ample time to do so.

The government, meanwhile, argued it had fully responded to and fixed the violations laid out by Morris and that matter should be concluded.

In his Friday ruling, Morris determined the government has fully remedied the violations specified in his 2019 ruling, and that the request to vacate the Zinke order is not called for.

Morris did not, however, evaluate the environmental analysis. While the government has fixed the violation of not preparing an analysis of its coal leasing decision, the environmentalists can continue to challenge the content of the analysis to ensure that it complies with the Mineral Leasing Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.

Morris noted he likely has jurisdiction to review such a challenge, which would need to be filed as a separate action.

The groups also asked Morris, as an alternative to vacating the Zinke order, for an injunction barring coal leases while the case progresses. The judge denied the request.

To justify an injunction, Morris said the plaintiffs must show some form of irreparable injury without one. The environmental groups have not shown that an injury would take place if public land coal leases are allowed to proceed, Morris found.

He noted the federal government has not issued any coal leases yet and once it does, each lease will require an environmental analysis before it can be approved.

Morris said the plaintiffs can challenge each analysis as they occur — in separate actions.

With no other issues on the table to consider, Morris directed the case to be closed.

The parties’ attorneys did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

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