Feds Defend Plans for Coal Leases on Public Land

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 heard telephonic arguments Wednesday on whether the Trump administration provided proper environmental analysis on the impacts of opening up thousands of acres of public lands to coal leasing.

U.S. District Judge Brian Morris, an Obama appointee, presided over the hearing that saw each side argue its end of a dispute that has been ongoing for nearly three years.

Wednesday’s hearing comes after a coalition of environmental groups, including Citizens for Clean Energy, Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife, sued the U.S. Department of the Interior and other federal agencies in 2017. The groups claimed that the Trump administration wrongfully lifted a pause on federal coal leasing issued under the Obama administration.

The groups claim the Trump administration lifted the ban without properly preparing an environmental impact statement on how it and the larger federal coal program would influence the environment. They say the Trump administration simply reversed the previous administration’s decision without first offering the required environmental evaluation, and in turn, violated the National Environmental Policy Act (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 2017 complaint states, referring to then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. “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.”

Two years after the original complaint was filed, Morris ruled largely in favor of the environmentalists and found the federal government did not conduct appropriate analysis when it lifted the coal leasing ban.

Morris’s 2019 ruling led the government to announce it would prepare an environmental assessment to address the legal problems with their decision as outlined by Morris.

During Wednesday’s hearing over whether the government fixed those legal problems, the environmentalists argued the Trump administration had still not properly satisfied its duty under NEPA.

“In the year since the court held that federal defendants violated NEPA, it’s given federal defendants every opportunity to cure that violation,” the groups’ attorney Jenny Harbine told Morris. “But all that federal defendants have done is to publish an entirely unresponsive environmental assessment, one that doesn’t even address the NEPA question identified by the court in its merit’s ruling.”

The environmentalists argued the federal defendants are attempting to defend their determinations by stating Zinke’s order was only a policy change. The groups argued Zinke’s order, which stated that “the public interest is not served by halting the federal coal program for an extended time” was an action that triggered the need for an environmental review, and that the federal defendants’ argument asserting otherwise has already been defeated by the court.

As a result, the groups said, the final environmental assessment issued by the federal government “does not even come close to providing a remedy to this very serious violation of the law.”

Arguing for the Trump administration, attorney Joseph Kim said the plaintiffs “appear to either misunderstand the case, NEPA or both.”

The federal government argued its analysis passes the tests required under the law, and that its response to the challenges outlined by the court were satisfactory.

The government also accuses the environmentalists of attempting to justify their current challenge using precedents from previous rulings irrelevant to this case.

After a question from Judge Morris over what would become the new status quo for leasing should he vacate Zinke’s order, Kim said that it would not actually impose a new pause on coal leasing.

The only way to enact such a pause on coal leasing would be for Morris to issue an injunction — an action the federal government claims is far from called for, Kim said.

Morris took the case under submission and promised a ruling soon.

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