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Westmoreland coal mine

The Westmoreland coal mines near Colstrip employ about 380 people in this small town of 2,400 in southeastern Montana.

HELENA — Montana's attorney general is jumping into the legal battle over Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's decision to lift the moratorium on coal-mining leases on federal land.

Zinke signed the order reversing the Obama administration's pause on issuing new coal mining leases on March 29. It was quickly challenged in federal court by environmental groups.

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, a Republican who was re-elected to a second term last November, is seeking to join the suit supporting Zinke because Fox says Montana's economy relies heavily on taxes paid by coal mining operations.

In fiscal year 2016, Montana received $15.4 million in coal royalties paid on federal lands. Montana is the sixth largest coal-producing state, accounting for 4.7 percent of all U.S. coal. The state has an estimated 25 percent of the nation’s recoverable coal reserves.

In addition, said Eric Sell, Fox's communications director, the lawsuit filed by the environmental groups is based on shaky legal ground.

Even before the moratorium, Montana had seen coal production drop drastically. Through the first four months of this year, production is a third less than two years ago. Last year the state saw the lowest production levels in decades.

Sell said coal as a revenue source is in decline from what it has been historically, but it still has a significant impact in the state.

“Whether or not that is going to go away 10 to 15 years from now, I don’t know, I don’t have a crystal ball,” Sell said.

Utilities are looking more to natural gas, which is less expensive than coal, to produce electricity. That fuel recently overtook coal as the country’s most-used energy source, according to the Energy Information Administration. Consumers are also increasingly asking for fuel produced from renewable sources like solar and wind, and utilities in Oregon and Washington, which buy power from a coal-fired plant in Colstrip, are required to lower the amount of electricity they get from coal in coming years.

Though coal may still produce revenue for the state, there may be associated costs for the state health care system. Sulfur dioxide, a pollutant linked to the burning of fossil fuels, has been linked to asthma and other lung diseases, according to DPHHS’s Asthma Burden Report from March 2017. About 47 percent of asthma hospitalizations in 2011 were paid for by Medicaid, Medicare, or some other governmental source, totaling approximately $4.7 million in 2011.

“I think when you look at any type of energy production — coal, natural gas, wind, solar — (each has a) positive and negative economic impact,” Sell said.

Weighing those pros and cons for coal production should be something done by legislators and policy makers, Sell said. What the attorney general is weighing in on is whether what Zinke did was legal, and Fox believes it was, Sell said.

President Donald Trump ran on the promise of bringing back coal mining jobs, which have been in decline for decades as underground East Coast mines have become more expensive to operate. Montana, which has mostly less-expensive-to-operate strip mines, has seen relatively stable levels of coal-mining jobs, though a drop is anticipated as utilities rely more on cheaper natural gas.

The lawsuit challenging Zinke's lifting of the moratorium was filed by Citizens for Clean Energy, EcoCheyenne, Montana Environmental Center, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe.

The Northern Cheyenne have large coal reserves on their reservation, but have expressed concerns over the environmental impacts of mining it. The neighboring Crow Tribe has mined on its reservation but struggled to realize economic benefits.

The defendants include the U.S. Department of the Interior, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The state of Wyoming also has weighed in on behalf of Zinke in the suit, which is before U.S. District Court Judge Brian Morris in Great Falls.

Fox will allocate some staff resources to fighting the lawsuit, Sell said.

The plaintiffs say that Zinke's decision puts the environment at risk and violates the National Environmental Policy Act, the Administrative Procedures act, the Mineral Leasing Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. 

States including New Mexico, California, New York and Washington have joined the plaintiffs in seeking to reverse the March 29 order.

— Reporter Holly Michels contributed to this story.