Victories against coal, oil, and gas development are extra sweet when they also involve protecting millions acres of public land from fossil fuel exploitation. After seven years of litigation and two consecutive lawsuits, a federal court in Montana recently (finally!) ruled in MEIC’s favor against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in a case involving fossil fuel extraction on 15 million acres of public lands across Montana and Wyoming in the Powder River Basin. With this victory, we are hopeful that BLM will finally consider the impacts of extracting and burning 11 billion tons of coal and allowing the extraction of oil and gas.
The case involves BLM’s Resource Management Plans (RMPs), which are intended to “guide and control management” of public lands in the West. They are required as one of the first steps for the federal government to develop fossil fuel resources. RMPs determine what lands are suitable for leasing minerals such as coal, oil, and gas. Until now, BLM has used RMPs as a stepping stone to make vast swaths of public lands available for mining and drilling.
Initially, in 2015, BLM issued RMPs for two adjacent areas in the Powder River Basin (the Miles City, MT, and Buffalo, WY, field offices). MEIC and our partner organizations challenged those RMPS in federal court, asserting that the RMPs were deficient because BLM failed to consider climate and environmental impacts of leasing enormous volumes of oil, gas, and coal. The RMPs also failed to consider possible alternatives to extracting 11 billion tons of coal. The extraction and burning of these fossil fuels would result in hundreds of millions of tons of greenhouse gases impacting our fragile climate over a 20-year period and would result in the release of huge volumes of harmful air pollutants. In 2018, a federal court ruled in our favor. It required BLM to go back to the drawing board and to disclose the potential impacts of extracting and burning these fossil fuels as well as to consider alternatives that would allow extraction of something less than the entire quantity of fossil fuel under these public lands.
Then the Trump Administration took over. BLM issued the updated RMPs in 2020 but brazenly made many of the same mistakes and omissions as in its original analysis, forcing MEIC and our partners back to court. This August, the court ruled that:
- “BLM again failed to consider any alternative that decreases the amount of extractable coal practically available for leasing.”
- BLM “failed to consider any alternatives that would limit the expansion of existing mines … despite explicit direction from this Court that NEPA required BLM” to do so.
- BLM’s “multiple use mandate does not require BLM to prioritize mineral development over other uses, such as closing areas to fossil fuel development.”
- BLM “must disclose the public health impacts, both climate and non-climate, of burning fossil fuels from the planning areas.”
Hopefully, BLM will follow the court’s order this time around, and analyze and disclose not only the impacts of leasing vast quantities of climate destroying fossil fuels, but also consider alternatives that reduce or eliminate fossil fuel leasing altogether. Again, MEIC and our partners feel fortunate to be represented by Melissa Hornbein with WELC, Shiloh Hernandez with Earthjustice, and Nathanial Shoaff with Sierra Club.
This article was published in the September 2022 issue of Down To Earth.