Energy & Environment

Court rejects greens’ climate case against federal coal mining

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A federal appeals court on Tuesday rejected environmentalists’ arguments that the Trump administration has to evaluate the climate change impact of leasing federal land for coal mining.

The three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit unanimously ruled that the Interior Department is not obligated to update its 1979 review of the environmental impact of the federal coal program, despite substantial new scientific findings about climate change and the significant role that coal plays in warming the atmosphere.

The judges said that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) doesn’t compel a new environmental impact statement.


“The fact that actions continue to occur in compliance with the program does not render the original action incomplete. Accordingly, the department’s NEPA obligation for the Federal Coal Management Program terminated with its adoption in 1979,” Judge Harry Edwards, nominated to the court by former President Carter, wrote in the ruling.

The judges further argued that NEPA only requires a new analysis when a program is new or changes significantly, which isn’t the case for the coal program.

“Appellants have failed to identify any specific pending action, apart from the program’s continued existence, that qualifies as a ‘major federal action’ under NEPA,” Edwards said.

The ruling is a major blow for greens, who argue that the federal government is significantly contributing to climate change by allowing so much coal mining on federal land.

About 40 percent of the nation’s coal is produced on federal land, mainly in the West in areas like the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming.

The mining causes about 769 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually, or about 13 percent of the United States’ greenhouse gases, Resources for the Future estimated last year.

Interior said the ruling is a major vindication.

“For the second time, a federal judge proved that the environmental special interest groups are only interested in wasting taxpayer dollars on frivolous litigation. ​The department will continue to run a responsible coal leasing program that supports jobs and economic vitality for rural communities,” said Interior spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort.

The Obama administration halted new coal mining leases in 2016 and started preparing a new environmental review, with the goal of potential changes to royalty structures or other aspects of the program to account for the climate impact of federal coal.

But the Trump administration restarted coal leasing quickly after President Trump took office. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke undid the moratorium in March 2017 and stopped the environmental review process.

“We feel strongly that the current process on reviewing coal is appropriate,” he said at the time.

In the case, titled Western Organization of Resource Councils and Friends of the Earth v. Zinke, the court told greens that they might have other avenues to compel Zinke to conduct a new environmental review, such as filing a formal petition for a new review or challenging the review of a specific mine’s approval.

— This story was update at 4:50 p.m.

Tags Climate change Coal Donald Trump Interior Department Ryan Zinke
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