Energy & Environment

Court faults agency for climate analysis of coal mine

A federal court faulted the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Friday for what it said were incorrect assumptions about the climate change impact of mining four coal tracts in Wyoming and the use of that coal.

The BLM concluded in 2010 that if companies were not allowed to mine the coal on federal land in Wyoming, the demand for coal would still be so high that it would be mined somewhere else, so the carbon dioxide emissions would be the same whether the federal leases were approved or not.

The Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled Friday that the BLM's conclusion did not withstand scrutiny.

"The BLM did not point to any information (other than its own unsupported statements) indicating that the national coal deficit of 230 million tons per year incurred under the no action alternative could be easily filled from elsewhere, or at a comparable price," Judge Mary Beck Briscoe, nominated to the Denver court by former President Bill Clinton, wrote in the ruling on behalf of the three-judge panel.

"It did not refer to the nation's stores of coal or the rates at which those stores may be extracted. Nor did the BLM analyze the specific difference in price between [Powder River Basin] coal and other sources; such a price difference would effect substitutability," she said.

The court did not invalidate the leases on three of the tracts of land. Instead, it asked the BLM to fix its environmental review to better account for the climate impact.

The ruling is likely to be significant as a case that shows how far federal agencies must go to predict the environmental impacts of the decisions they make.

Environmentalists have been working for years to build such a body of case law. Just last month, another federal court ruled that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission must account for the climate impacts of burning the natural gas that goes through pipelines that it approves.

"The Tenth Circuit Court just secured a major victory for those that care about protecting public lands and our climate," said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, one of the green groups in the Friday case.

"Today's decision sheds new light on the destructive consequences of leasing our most precious lands to corporate polluters who value their balance sheets more than public health."

The ruling came months after the Trump administration overturned the Obama administration's moratorium on issuing new leases to mine coal on federal land.

The Obama administration had issued the moratorium so that it could do a more thorough analysis of the climate impacts of federal coal mining.

Friday's decision was joined by Judge Monroe McKay, nominated by former President Jimmy Carter, and Judge Bobby Ray Baldock, nominated by former President Ronald Reagan.

Baldock separately wrote that while he agreed with the ruling on economic grounds, he thought it was unnecessary for the two other judges to examine the climate science behind the issue.