Federal Judge Nixes Montana Coal Mine Expansion

A federal judge said that the U.S. Office of Surface Mining did not address health, air and climate concerns caused by hauling coal by railroad from Montana’s largest coal mine operation.

High-voltage electrical lines run from coal-fired generating plants in Colstrip, Montana. (Photo: David Reese)

(CN) — A Montana judge on Wednesday ruled that the federal government ignored the health, air pollution and greenhouse-gas consequences of hauling and burning more coal from Montana’s largest coal mine. 

In a rebuke of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, Judge Susan Watters ruled the agency failed to disclose the full impacts of expanding southeastern Montana’s Spring Creek mine, the largest in the state.

Watters said the agency ignored federal law by failing to address the impacts of trains hauling coal from the mine, the air pollution consequences of burning more coal from the mine, and the climate costs of greenhouse gas emissions that would result from more coal mining and burning. Her ruling was the latest in a series of court rulings that have rejected federal fossil fuel programs.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the federal government argued that the repeated failure of the Office of Surface Mining to fulfill its NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) obligations warranted an immediate injunction of mining operations. However, Watters’ ruling gave the agency 240 days to complete a “corrective” analysis and an updated environmental assessment.

Defendants Spring Creek Coal LLC, Navajo Transitional Energy Company LLC and the federal defendants argued in the case that they had adequately addressed coal transportation and greenhouse gas issues, but Watters found those arguments “unpersuasive.”

The Spring Creek mine has been tied up in coal industry tumult for several years now. The mine’s previous owner, Cloud Peak Energy, went bankrupt in 2019 and the mine was then sold to the Navajo Transitional Energy Company. 

Last November, a federal judge rejected the sale of public lands in Wyoming for fracking and earlier in 2020, a Montana judge overturned the sale of more than 150,000 acres of public lands for oil and gas. In 2018, a court rejected plans to open up massive amounts of Montana and Wyoming to coal mining and oil and gas extraction.

Billed by the Montana Coal Council as “abundant, low cost and reliable,” coal has been in decline for the last decade as natural gas and expanded renewable energy have risen in market share.

The U.S. government oversees vast amounts of coal production in the United States, including the Powder River Basin of southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming. Roughly one-third of America’s coal reserves are in Montana, according to the Montana Coal Council.

According to a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the government, environmental advocacy group WildEarth Guardians, the Powder River Basin is the largest coal-producing region in the United States, with coal from this region burning in 300 coal-fired electric generating units in the United States.

Montana’s Spring Creek mine produces approximately 18 million tons annually. Most of this coal is burned to generate electricity, which, according to WildEarth Guardians, produces 75,000 tons of acid rain-producing sulfur dioxide, 28,000 tons of ozone-forming nitrogen oxides and 500 pounds of mercury.

When coal is burned to create electricity, the process releases chemicals that combine with oxygen in the atmosphere to create sulfur dioxide, which can cause “acid rain,” according to the U.S. Energy Information Association.

Federal environmental laws such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act require industries to reduce pollutants that are released into the environment.

Coal from the Spring Creek area is also linked to approximately 30 million tons of carbon pollution annually, equal to the amount released by more than 6.4 million cars, plaintiffs assert.

A report by the U.S. Geological Survey shows federal coal production is linked to more than 15% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Wednesday’s ruling also comes as the coal industry continues a steep decline. A report this week by the investment firm Morgan Stanley said the use of coal in energy production will disappear completely from the U.S. power grid by 2033.

“Courts have been clear, the federal government has to stop its coal boosterism, which is detached from reality,” Shiloh Hernandez, attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, said in a statement. “The government needs to oversee a managed decline of this industry that protects public health, ensures full reclamation that is funded by industry and not the public, and helps us … transition to a sustainable clean energy future.”

Barely a month into its job leading the country, the Biden administration has made transition from fossil fuels a priority of the federal government.

On Jan. 27, the president issued an executive order that directs the Interior Department to review the federal coal program — including an accounting of climate costs associated with coal development.

Derf Johnson, staff attorney with the Montana Environmental Information Center, said, “We need to start creating an equitable, just transition to a clean energy economy, and develop a plan for fully reclaiming the old mine sites with good-paying, union jobs.”

A request for comment from the Montana Coal Council was not immediately answered.

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