Lawsuit aims to maintain moratorium on federal coal leasing based partly on climate impacts
By Bob Berwyn
As Trump’s sputtering political bulldozer takes aim at public lands, the environment and the climate, conservation advocates are preparing to throw up a few legal roadblocks that could delay for years implementation of the administration’s anti-environmental agenda. The battles Trump has unleashed will begin a new era of uncertainty for American energy companies, even as the market-driven shift to renewable energy continues.
The first lawsuit against the Trump administration’s attack on the environment has already been filed in U.S. District Court in Montana, where Earthjustice attorneys, on behalf of citizen conservation groups and communities, including Native Americans, are seeking to block Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s decision to repeal a coal mining moratorium on public lands.
Under former President Obama, the Interior Department adopted the moratorium to give experts a chance to review the coal leasing program, both for its climate impacts, as well as for financial implications to the American people. In a draft review released in January, the Bureau of Land Management found that more than 10 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, come from coal developed on federal lands. Zinke’s decision to roll back the Obama decision would open “the door to the significant environmental impacts that accompany leasing and mining,” the lawsuit charges:
- “Most importantly, an overwhelming body of evidence has developed demonstrating that continued reliance on fossil fuel-generated power will lead to a climate catastrophe, spurring 180 nations, including the United States, to commit in 2016 to greenhouse gas reductions to keep global temperature increases to no more than 1.5-2°C above pre-industrial levels. Reducing reliance on coal-based energy is essential to achieving this objective. Yet BLM has never completed a review of whether it can continue its coal leasing program and fulfill national climate commitments, as well as its statutory land-management obligations.”
Recent Interior Department and independent Government Accountability Office audits have also concluded that the current leasing system shortchanges taxpayers while subsidizing coal mining. The Trump administration’s decision to resume federal coal leasing will lock in these subsidies, which is critical for long-term policies and strategy to decarbonize the energy sector because it could encourage companies to make additional investments in fossil fuels that would unleash additional emissions decades from now.
The lawsuit charges that the abrupt reversal by Zinke violates federal law that requires rational, rather than arbitrary, decisionmaking, and that decision also violates the federal government’s sacred trust responsibility to the Northern Cheyenne Tribe.
“No one voted to pollute our public lands, air or drinking water in the last election, yet the Trump administration is doing the bidding of powerful polluters as nearly its first order of business,” said Earthjustice attorney Jenny Harbine, who is leading the effort to challenge the President’s actions. “Our legal system remains an important backstop against the abuses of power we’ve witnessed over the course of the past two months. That’s why we’re going to court to defend our public lands, clean air and water, and a healthy climate for all.”
The lawsuit has broad backing from a variety of people and groups in the region and nationally. Statements of support for the lawsuit came from ranchers, clean energy advocates and others, as detailed in the Earthjustice press release.
When the moratorium was put in place, the Interior Department estimated then-current federal leases produced enough coal to supply the country’s needs for 20 years. Further, Goldman Sachs analysts last year issued a report concluding that the “decline in long-term demand [for coal] appears to be irreversible.”
Coal mined from public lands contributes more than 40 percent of the United States’ coal and approximately 10 percent of its greenhouse gas pollution. Coal mining and combustion also impose heavy air-quality and public-health costs through emissions of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and mercury. Scientists have called on the United States to stop new coal leasing to help prevent the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.
The coalition suing the Trump administration is represented by Earthjustice on behalf of Citizens for Clean Energy, Montana Environmental Information Center, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, WildEarth Guardians and Defenders of Wildlife. The Northern Cheyenne Tribe is also suing to challenge the decision.