May 22, 2020
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A judge threw out a lawsuit on Friday from a coalition of states, environmental groups and American Indians which sought to revive an Obama-era moratorium against U.S. government coal sales on public lands in the West.
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U.S. District Judge Brian Morris said President Donald Trump’s administration had fixed its initial failure to consider the environmental impacts of ending the moratorium.
The administration’s opponents had argued it did not look closely enough at climate change and other effects from burning coal when it did an environmental analysis of the government’s coal program.
But Morris said the completion of that analysis was enough to fulfill the administration’s immediate legal obligations. Any review of whether the analysis was itself flawed would require a new lawsuit, he added.
Trump pledged to end the moratorium prior to being elected and in office has sought to boost the industry, despite market forces that have sharply curtailed mining.
Coal production has been dropping for years because of competition from cheaper fuels and pollution costs.
The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the decline. But critics of the coal program note that lease sales have continued and say the administration’s moves could open tens of thousands of acres of public lands to new mining.
In a ruling last year, Morris had faulted the Interior Department for not considering potential damage to the environment when it lifted the moratorium. In response, Interior Department officials analyzed the potential effects from four leases sold under the Trump administration and concluded they would result in a negligible impact on climate change.
The four leases that were analyzed make up a small piece of a federal leasing program that accounts for about 40% of U.S. coal production, primarily from large strip mines in Western states.
Opponents of the leasing program included the Democratic attorneys general of California, New York, New Mexico and Washington state.
The mining industry and two coal states, Wyoming and Montana, joined the case on the side of the federal government. They said lawsuit inappropriately sought to use the court system as a “backdoor vehicle” to stop coal leasing after other branches of the federal government declined to take up their cause.
National Mining Association spokesman Conor Bernstein said industry group was pleased the court accepted the government’s review as adequate, although it did not think it was necessary in the first place.