Judge rejects massive BLM coal mining proposal in Montana, Wyoming

Court says Biden administration failed to consider health impacts, didn’t follow federal law

By: - August 4, 2022 5:50 pm

Some of the coal mined in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming comes from surface mines like this one. (Photo courtesy of Wyoming BLM via Flickr | CC-BY-SA 2.0)

A federal judge in Montana has halted two large coal mining projects in Wyoming and Montana for the second time after he ruled the Bureau of Land Management has continued to disregard environmental impacts and ignored presenting Congressionally required alternatives.

The ruling could affect access to as many as 6 billion tons of coal that would be mined for a period of as many as 20 years.

Chief Montana District Court Judge Brian Morris said that the BLM’s plan for the Miles City and Buffalo (Wyoming) resource management plans have repeatedly failed to adequately address the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.

This is the second time the court has sent the plans back to the agency, doing so previously in 2018 for similar concerns that plans didn’t take into account things like non-greenhouse gases or the environmental impacts of burning coal.

Originally approved under the Donald Trump administration, the federal government under the Biden administration has also supported the BLM decision.

A group of plaintiffs, including the Western Organization of Resource Councils, the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians, the Montana Environmental Information Center, Earthjustice and the Western Environmental Law Center, said the BLM’s repeated attempts at passing the plans proved the agency is only interested in “propping up the dying coal industry.”

In his ruling, Morris said that the BLM must take a “hard look” at the environmental consequences of any action, and that an environmental impact statement must provide a full and fair discussion of the environmental impacts and that it would inform the public of “reasonable alternatives” which would avoid or minimize the impacts to human health.

“The court…determines that BLM failed to consider adequate alternatives or appropriately consider downstream impacts of non-greenhouse gas emissions in violation of NEPA and the APA,” Morris wrote.

Many of the organizations pointed out that Thursday’s decision was really just a repeat of the previous decision, something the court also suggested.

“The tragedy is that this litigation didn’t need to happen. Seven years ago BLM promised the American people an ‘open and honest conversation’ about the federal coal program,” said Lynne Huskinson, retired coal miner and board member of the Powder River Basin Resource Council and Western Organization of Resource Councils from Gillette, Wyoming. “But we’re still waiting for them to do an honest analysis of the climate and public health consequences of their choices. Maybe now BLM will finally wake up.”

Morris also chided the agency for wanting to reconsider its assessment at the last moment because he said the concerns the court raised three years ago still had not been addressed, and he doubted whether allowing the agency to reconsider the decision before a court ruling would result in a different outcome. The court said allowing the agency more time may only delay a resolution.

“The court determines that, at this late stage of litigation, BLM’s motion would be frivolous and demonstrates a lack of good faith. This court previously found BLM’s NEPA analysis deficient,” Morris said.

He said that given its history in the case, the court couldn’t be convinced the federal agency would consider “downstream emissions” since it had been ordered to do so previously but still had yet to do so.

“BLM makes no specific guarantees to consider downstream emissions in its motion,” the order said. “BLM also fails to define what NEPA alternatives it will consider. Given the timing and lack of guarantee that BLM will address the issues before the court, the court must deny the motion for remand.”

Morris ordered that the BLM complete a new coal screening and NEPA analysis within a year. He specifically ordered the BLM to consider no coal leasing and limited coal leasing alternatives that “must disclose the public health impacts, both climate and non-climate, of burning fossil fuels from the planning areas.”

The court also ordered any new or pending coal, oil or gas leases in the Buffalo and Miles City area to undergo “comprehensive environmental analysis under NEPA and the APA.”

“Coal mining represents a potentially allowable use of public lands, but BLM is not required to lease public lands. The multiple-use mandate does not bar BLM from considering a no-leasing alternative for public lands,” Morris wrote as part of the decision.

Some of the groups said that Biden administration’s decision to defend the actions started by the Trump administration shows that the Democratic administration isn’t serious about climate change.

““This ruling is a shameful confirmation that the Biden administration has no real interest in defending public lands or the climate,” said Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Program director for WildEarth Guardians. “Thankfully the courts are upholding law and science, but it’s sad that President Biden is allowing his administration to undermine his promises to protect our health and our climate.”

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.

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