Billings, Mont. • A coalition of U.S. states, environmentalists and an American Indian tribe asked a federal judge on Wednesday to revive a moratorium on coal sales from federal lands that was imposed under former President Barack Obama then dropped by the Trump administration.
The case centers on whether the Trump administration looked closely enough at climate change and other impacts from burning coal after deciding to end the moratorium in 2017.
Coal production has been dropping for years because of competition from cheaper fuels and pollution costs, despite strong backing for the industry from President Donald Trump. The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the decline. But critics of the coal program note that lease sales have continued and say the administration's moves could open tens of thousands of acres of public lands to new mining.
In a ruling last year, the judge in the case faulted the administration for not considering the potential damage to the environment when it lifted the moratorium. In response, Interior Department officials reanalyzed the potential effects and declared in February that coal sales from public lands result in a negligible increase in greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.
Their conclusion was based on reviewing potential emissions from four coal leases in Utah and Oklahoma that were sold after the moratorium was lifted.
With that review completed, there was “no basis” for the coal leasing to remain under suspension, U.S. Justice Department attorney Joseph Kim said during a Wednesday teleconference hearing in the case. He described the moratorium as a “pause" on leasing and said resuming sales did not require the government to go back and justify its coal program, which dates to the 1970s.
The four leases that were analyzed make up a small piece of a federal leasing program that accounts for about 40 percent of U.S. coal production, primarily from large strip mines in Western states.
A lease sale last month brought in $3.4 million for almost 10 million tons of coal on federal lands adjacent to GCC Energy's King II mine in southwestern Colorado.
Opponents of the leasing program include the Democratic attorneys general of California, New York, New Mexico and Washington state, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and several environmental groups.
“Now is the perfect time to put a halt on digging up coal from our public lands and subjecting the public to the air, water and climate pollution that activity causes,” said Earthjustice attorney Jenny Harbine, who represents WildEarth Guardians, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups that sued the administration after the moratorium was lifted.
The mining industry and two coal states, Wyoming and Montana, have lined up on the side of the federal government.
They said the administration was within its rights to lift the moratorium, and that it satisfied any environmental concerns through the court-ordered analysis that was completed in February.
The lawsuit was being used as “a backdoor vehicle to judicially end federal coal leasing," after other branches of government declined to take up the cause, attorneys for the coal states and mining industry wrote in court filings.
Coal sales from public lands were largely halted in 2016 under Obama over worries about climate change and whether companies were paying a fair price for the fuel. The moratorium was rescinded by then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke soon after Trump took office, fulfilling a Republican campaign pledge.
The case is before U.S. District Judge Brian Morris in Great Falls.
Morris has handed down a succession of defeats to Trump’s efforts to boost the domestic energy industry, including recent rulings against nearly 300 oil and gas leases in Montana and the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to Nebraska.