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Environmental groups: Court’s rejection of ‘massive’ Wyoming, Montana coal mining plan a wake-up call for BLM

Coal mine workers in an open pit

GILLETTE, Wyo. — A number of environmental groups are applauding a federal judge’s decision Wednesday to strike down two Bureau of Land Management resource management plans related to proposed coal mining in Wyoming and Montana.

A group of environmental organizations brought a case against the BLM, arguing that it “failed to address the public health consequences of allowing massive amounts of coal, oil, and gas production from public lands and minerals in the Powder River Basin,” a press release shared by the Powder River Basin Resource Council on Thursday said.

The proposed coal mining plans would have allowed for the mining of about 6 billion tons of coal over 20 years that the environmental groups said would have been “low-grade, highly polluting coal.”

United States District Court for the District of Montana Chief Judge Brian Morris ruled on Wednesday that the BLM must redo its analyses of environmental and health impacts related to the coal mining proposals.

The court also determined that the BLM had “failed to consider adequate alternatives or appropriately consider downstream impacts of non-GHG emissions in violation of [the National Environmental Policy Act] and the [Administrative Procedure Act],” the ruling stated.

While the BLM is able to lease public lands for coal mining as a potential use, Morris wrote that the BLM is not required to do so and that it is able to consider an alternative that doesn’t lease public lands for coal mining.

The resource management plans in question designate how much coal can be mined and burned from federal land within the planning areas, the press release from the environmental groups said.

“Almost all coal mined in the region is used for electricity production, making the region the largest single source of carbon dioxide pollution in the nation,” the press release said. “More than 43% of all coal produced in the U.S., and more than 85% of all federal coal produced in the U.S., comes from the Powder River Basin, which stretches more than 13 million acres across Montana and Wyoming.”

Melissa Hornbein, a senior attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, said the judge’s ruling is a sign the court recognizes the importance of the climate crisis and the BLM should likewise take it seriously.

“The Bureau of Land Management is singularly focused on propping up the dying coal industry at the expense of its legal obligations to consider public health and the climate,” Horbein said. “That a federal judge ordered the Bureau to consider a no-leasing alternative and disclose to the public how many people will be sickened and die as a result of the combustion of federal coal is groundbreaking. The courts recognize the seriousness of the climate crisis and the impacts of fossil-fuel pollution. The BLM must now do likewise.”

The case in question dates back to at least 2018, when the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana ordered the BLM under the administration of former President Donald Trump to revise management plans for its Miles City and Buffalo Field Offices.

“The judge ruled that the agency failed to consider an alternative that reduced the amount of coal available for strip-mining, failed to disclose potential harm from fossil fuel combustion and failed to disclose the short-term climate harm of methane emissions,” the press release from the environmental groups said on Thursday.

The BLM responded in 2020 with a revision to its analysis, but environmental organizations argued that it had failed to consider alternatives that would reduce or eliminate coal leasing to help mitigate climate change. The BLM also failed to “disclose or analyze the human health impacts of the harmful and toxic non-greenhouse gas pollutants that would result from burning more coal, oil, and gas,” the press release said.

“The tragedy is that this litigation didn’t need to happen,” said Lynne Huskinson, a retired coal miner and Powder River Basin Resource Council and Western Organization of Resource Councils board member. “Seven years ago BLM promised the American people an ‘open and honest conversation’ about the federal coal program. 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.”

Joanie Kresich, chair of the Northern Plains Resource Council, said the judge’s ruling is welcome with Wyoming and Montana dealing with more frequent severe droughts, flooding and heat waves related to climate change.

“We are pleased that the court has upheld the law,” she said. “BLM will have to fully consider climate pollution when it makes decisions about our region’s public lands and minerals. We have an obligation to provide a healthy climate to our children and grandchildren, and this ruling helps make that possible.”

Taylor McKinnon with the Center for Biological Diversity said it is “horrifying” that it takes federal lawsuits to get the administration of President Joe Biden to “even consider ending fossil-fuel leasing or accounting for its massive climate damage.”

“Climate pollution from federal fossil fuels is torching forests, drying the Colorado River, and pushing endangered species closer to extinction,” McKinnon said. “It has to end.”

Connie Wilbert, director of Sierra Club Wyoming, similarly praised the ruling.

“What’s great about this ruling is the court didn’t just stop at requiring BLM to assess other uses of our public lands. It requires BLM to fully analyze and disclose all impacts from mining and burning fossil fuels taken from our public lands,” Wilbert said. “It’s well past time for BLM to be honest with the American people about the climate impacts that bring devastating wildfires, heat waves, and flooding, as well as the tremendous toll on human health caused by burning fossil fuels from public lands. This ruling will shine a bright light into this dark corner of the fossil fuel industry.”