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Judge: Agency keeps ignoring environment in coal region plan

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Coal Leasing Climate Change

In this March 28, 2017 file photo, a dump truck hauls coal at Contura Energy's Eagle Butte Mine near Gillette, Wyo. A judge has ruled U.S. government officials engaged in regional-level planning failed to follow a court order requiring them to consider allowing less coal to be mined as a way to fight climate change. 

HELENA — A federal agency has once again failed to consider possible damage to the environment caused by mining coal when setting land management policies governing a major coal-producing region in Wyoming and Montana, a judge ruled this week.

The ruling rejected resource management plans created in November 2019 by the Bureau of Land Management offices in Miles City, Montana, and Buffalo, Wyoming, that would direct the management of the Powder River Basin — where the land agency says nearly 44% of all coal produced in the U.S. comes from — for the next 20 years.

This is the second time, both under President Donald Trump, that Morris has rejected the agency's resource management plans governing the potential use of just over 20,300 square miles of land in Montana and Wyoming. The Biden administration defended the second plan.

Those 2019 plans also failed to consider limiting the expansion of coal mines or eliminating some coal deposits from leasing eligibility, U.S. District Judge Brian Morris in Great Falls said in his ruling Wednesday.

Morris gave the land bureau up to a year to produce new resource management plans that take into consideration the public health impacts — both climate and non-climate related — of burning fossil fuels recovered from federal lands when it determines how much, if any, coal should be available to lease.

In the meantime, any new or pending leases of coal, oil or natural gas in the areas must undergo a comprehensive environmental analysis that complies with Morris' order and the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires agencies to assess the environmental effects of their proposed actions before making decisions.

The Bureau of Land Management and the state of Wyoming argued the agency's land-use planning process did not allow it to consider a no-leasing alternative, court records said.

"Coal mining represents a potentially allowable use of public lands, but BLM is not required to lease public lands," Morris said.

But coal mines in the region have been closing as scientists say human-caused climate change will continue to make weather more extreme, wildfires more frequent and destructive, and water supplies less reliable.

"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," Melissa Hornbein, a senior attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center, said in a statement. "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 Bureau of Land Management does not comment on pending litigation, spokesperson Brian Hires said.

Agency offices updated their resource management plans in 2015, but environmental groups — including the Western Organization of Resource Councils — challenged the Montana and Wyoming plans in court.

The plans would have made 80 billion tons of federally owned coal available for leasing and allow access to 12,500 square miles of land for oil and gas development, according to the National Resource Defense Council.

Environmental groups argued that the 2015 plans did not meet National Environmental Policy Act requirements in part because they didn't consider the effect of offering less coal for lease and did not analyze the environmental and human consequences of burning the coal.

In March 2018, Morris ordered the agency to re-do the plans, in part to consider reducing the amount of coal available for leasing and to analyze the environmental effects of burning the coal, oil and natural gas available for lease under the plans.

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