Open Meeting Claims Against the Feds Will Proceed in Coal Management Dispute

A federal judge in Montana denied the Department of Energy’s request to dismiss landowners’ open meetings claims relating to the National Coal Council’s decision-making process.

(CN) — Montana landowners who say the feds are shutting them out of coal-related decisions may pursue their open meeting claims against the Departement of Energy, a federal court in Montana ruled Tuesday.

Montana District Judge Brian Morris, an Obama appointee, allowed the claims to proceed following a legal battle between the Department of Energy and the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC), a group that represents Montana ranchers and landowners, over the department’s decision-making process on coal-related issues.

Steam rises from coal-fired electrical generating plants in Colstrip, Montana. (Courthouse News photo / David Reese)

The claims stem from a complaint filed by WORC last year, when the organization alleged that the National Coal Council, an advisory committee designed to advise the Department of Energy, was improperly meeting behind closed doors to advance pro-coal interests without keeping Montana landowners in the loop.

“Rather than pursue its task with the full and transparent participation of these voices, the Council has operated in secret and works to advance the goals of only one interest: the industries that profit from the development and combustion of coal,” the complaint stated.

In the fall of 2018, WORC filed a similar complaint against the Trump administration with allegations that the Interior Department’s Royalty Policy Committee was stacking its membership with industry members and holding secret meetings. In that case, a judge ultimately found that the committee was improperly established and subsequently set aside its recommendations.

WORC has alleged that since the onset of the Trump administration in 2017, the council has offered up several recommendations to the Department of Energy that seem designed to ramp up coal extraction efforts across the country — recommendations that could come with serious environmental consequences.

“These recommendations threaten a catastrophic wave of irresponsible coal mining and consumption, with associated public health effects from air and water pollution,” WORC stated in its complaint.

Shortly after WORC levied fresh claims against the government for their management of the National Coal Council, the Department of Energy asked the court to dismiss the suit outright, claiming that court lacked jurisdiction and the plaintiffs failed to properly state a claim.

But in an 18-page ruling released Tuesday, Judge Morris denied the motion to dismiss on both grounds, claiming that WORC has raised serious enough allegations to survive the dismissal request.

The judge specifically looked to the coal committee’s released reports in determining how the coal council was conducting itself. Morris pointed out there is almost no meaningful documentation that details how the reports released by the coal council had been discussed or revised, suggesting the bulk of the reports were completed behind closed doors.

Because of this, according to the judge, the Montana landowners have plausibly alleged that the council is attempting to minimize their compliance with federal meeting standards by releasing their reports for finalization only after most of the work has been done on them — work that was done without outside input from the Montana landowners who say they have a direct stake in the policies and actions adopted by the council.  

These attempts to shut WORC and its members out of the coal decision-making process, according to the group, are troubling given the investment WORC members have in the wellbeing of their land.

“Plaintiff’s membership is injured when the federal government encourages overdevelopment of the coal resources underlying or abutting the memberships’ properties.” WORC states. “For example, coal extraction activities disturb nearby environs with machinery that emits noise, water, and air pollution, and mining practices (such as “longwall mining”) that can literally split open the earth.”

Marcia Westkott, chair of Powder River Basin Resource Council and member of WORC, says that Tuesday’s ruling is a big win for those looking to see more transparency from the coal council.

“We are pleased that the court agrees that the National Coal Council deserves scrutiny, and we look forward to the final ruling, which should shed light on how over the years the Council has sought to silence the voices of ranchers, landowners, and coal mine neighbors,” Westkott said in a statement.

Representatives for the Department of Energy did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday evening.

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