Native Americans and conservation groups moved to challenge the Trump administration’s decision to restart coal leasing on federal lands, arguing in a legal filing that the activity violates federal environmental laws.
The groups filed their lawsuit in a Montana-based federal court Wednesday, hours after Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed an order to resume selling rights to mine federally owned coal. Zinke also halted a broad environmental review of federal coal leasing that his predecessor started a year ago with the goal of modernizing the program for the first time in decades.
“This reckless action is an ill-advised attempt to prop up our dirtiest form of energy,” said Mark Salvo, vice president of landscape conservation at Defenders of Wildlife, one of the groups challenging the decision. “Lifting the coal moratorium opens the floodgates of potential harm to wildlife from pollution and habitat destruction.”
Challengers include the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, whose Montana reservation is near mines on federal land estimated to contain 426 million tons (386 million metric tons) of coal. The groups, represented by San Francisco-based environmental organization Earthjustice, are asking the court to set aside Zinke’s decision to lift the leasing moratorium and block further leasing until the environmental review is completed.
They argue the government already acknowledged major problems with the federal coal leasing program by beginning its sweeping review last year — so the Interior Department can’t now resume sales as if nothing’s wrong.
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President Barack Obama halted most sales of coal on federal lands in January 2015 to allow for the program review. The Interior Department concluded that scrutiny was necessary under the National Environmental Policy Act after holding five hearings on the issue and considering nearly 100,000 public comments.
In January, it released a blueprint of possible changes, including tacking a carbon fee onto coal leases to account for climate change, requiring payments into a fund to help out-of-work miners and even halting sales altogether. That document bulked up a record of evidence that some updates are necessary — potent fodder for the current legal challenge.
Zinke said the comprehensive, program-wide review was too costly, would have taken too long and wasn’t necessary since individual lease sales are already subject to discrete environmental assessments. “Those processes sometimes are decades long,” Zinke told reporters on a conference call earlier Wednesday.
An Interior Department spokesman declined to comment on the lawsuit.
About 40 percent of U.S. coal now comes from federal land, much of it from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana. But even before Obama halted sales, coal producers had little interest in adding more reserves to their portfolios amid slumping demand. And existing federal leases contain at least 20 years’ worth of coal.
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Critics say the federal leasing program shortchanges taxpayers by allowing companies to buy coal at rock-bottom prices — in part because of scant competition. The Government Accountability Office said in 2014 that the Interior Department was not fully considering future market conditions and potential coal exports in determining the value of its leases. The program’s last big assessment was in 1979.
L. Jace Killsback, the president of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, said a thorough review “is critical to understanding the full economic, environmental, and health impacts of the program.”
“Coal mining near the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation will impact our pristine air and water quality, will adversely affect our sacred cultural properties and traditional spiritual practices and will ultimately destroy the traditional way of life that the nation has fought to preserve for centuries,” Killsback said in a news release.
This isn’t the first time environmentalists have turned to the courts to force changes to federal coal leasing. Several groups filed a lawsuit in 2014 seeking an overhaul and after a judge ruled against them in 2015, they appealed. That litigation was still ongoing when the Obama administration imposed the leasing halt last year.
The case is Citizens for Clean Energy v. U.S. Department of the Interior, 17-cv-30, U.S. District Court, District of Montana (Great Falls).