Energy & Environment

Federal court restores Obama-era freeze on coal leasing on public lands

A federal judge on Friday restored a 2016 moratorium on coal leasing on federal lands that had been overturned by the Trump administration.

In the ruling, Judge Brian Morris of the District of Montana, an Obama appointee, ordered the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to reimpose the moratorium until it has conducted a more thorough environmental analysis.

Former Trump-appointed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had reversed the Obama-era hold in 2017. In January, the Biden administration rescinded Zinke’s specific order but did not fully reimpose the moratorium.

Leasing of federal lands for coal mining accounted for about 40 percent of U.S. coal production in 2015.

Morris had previously sided in 2019 with a coalition of tribal and environmental groups, ordering a new environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Calling the new analysis inadequate, the groups sued again in 2020. 

“BLM’s NEPA analysis should have considered the effect of restarting coal leasing from a forward-looking perspective, including connected actions,” Morris wrote. “The ‘status quo’ that existed before the Zinke Order was a moratorium on coal leasing. Because the baseline alternative must consider the status quo, BLM was required to begin its analysis from that point.” 

“The Tribe has fought and sacrificed to protect our homelands for generations, and our lands and waters mean everything to us. We are thrilled that the court is requiring what we have always asked for: serious consideration of the impacts of the federal coal leasing program on the Tribe and our way of life,” said Serena Wetherelt, president of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, a plaintiff in the case.  

“We hope that President Biden and [Interior] Secretary [Deb] Haaland fulfill their trust obligation to take a hard look at the overall energy program on federal lands and really consider how to make it best serve the Tribe, taxpayers, and the climate,” she added. 

After two years of decline, coal use sharply increased in 2021, and demand could potentially reach a record high this year, according to the International Energy Agency

In a statement, Rich Nolan, president and CEO of the National Mining Association, called the decision “deeply disappointing” and said the trade group will appeal the ruling.

“Denying access to affordable, secure energy during an energy affordability crisis is deeply troubling. Americans need the energy affordability and energy security buttressed by coal production on federal lands and so do our allies struggling to transition away from Russian energy,” Nolan said. “The reimposition of this moratorium couldn’t come at a worse time.”

Updated 4:33 p.m.

Tags Barack Obama Biden Brian Morris coal industry coal leasing Donald Trump Joe Biden Obama Ryan Zinke Trump
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