Enviros Lose Challenge for Coal-Leasing Study

     WASHINGTON (CN) – The U.S. Department of the Interior need not reassess how leasing the rights to mine federally owned coal will affect the environment, a federal judge ruled.
     Montana-based Western Organization of Resource Councils had sought such relief in a 2014 lawsuit brought with Friends of the Earth. The groups claimed that new research on the causes of global warming should force reconsideration of the government’s policy for giving companies the rights to mine coal.
     U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton found Thursday, however, that new research is not enough to force the government to reconsider the impact of the mining rights it hands out, and that the government’s program remains in line with the environmental impact statement prepared in 1979.
     The case hinges on a provision of the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act that requires federal agencies to amend environmental impact statements whenever they make a “substantial” change to a program.
     Because the Department of the Interior has not undertaken any “proposed action” that would change its Federal Coal Management Program, through which the Bureau of Land Management gives companies the rights to mine federally owned coal, the department does not need to reevaluate the initiative’s environmental impact, Walton ruled.
     “Leasing decisions are made pursuant to a pre-approved and [Environmental Impact Statement]-supported program,” Walton wrote. “And there is no allegation that the federal defendants have issued, and continue to issue, leases in a manner other than what was contemplated under the program implemented in 1979 or that they have proposed to amend the leasing program since 1979.”
     The government’s proposed action ended as soon as the program went into effect in 1979, and the simple act of continuing the program does not mean the agency was taking “ongoing ‘major [f]ederal action,'” Walton ruled, citing precedent from the 2005 case Hammond v. Norton.
     The Western Organization of Research Councils and Friends of the Earth announced Thursday they plan to appeal Walton’s ruling.
     “We are disappointed in the court’s decision but we plan to appeal and continue this effort until the BLM agrees to undertake a comprehensive environmental analysis of the entire coal leasing program,” Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica said in a statement. “This is what is required by federal law.”

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