GREAT FALLS, Mont.— Tribal and environmental groups filed their opening brief today challenging the Biden administration’s decision to defend a Trump-era policy continuing coal leasing on public lands. The brief argues that the Trump administration unlawfully tried to paper over fatal flaws in its rushed attempt to justify a policy reopening public lands to polluting coal mining.
In 2017 former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke reversed an Obama-era moratorium barring companies from future leasing of most federal lands for coal exploration or extraction pending completion of an environmental review. In 2019 Earthjustice, on behalf of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Citizens for Clean Energy, Montana Environmental Information Center, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, WildEarth Guardians, and Defenders of Wildlife, won a challenge to this policy.
However, the court-ordered remedy for the Trump administration, an environmental assessment, was also flawed, so the groups went back to court last year to challenge it. Today the groups filed the opening brief in that second challenge.
“We’re disappointed in the Biden administration on this issue,” said Jenny Harbine, an Earthjustice attorney. “Coal is one of the worst sources of climate-heating pollution in the world. The Biden administration has positioned itself as climate champions, so this decision to defend the Trump-era coal leasing policy is totally inconsistent with climate progress.”
The Trump administration’s February 2020 environmental analysis concluded that the leases under question would contribute up to 1 billion tons of climate heating greenhouse gas emissions per year. That’s 16.3% of the United States’ annual emissions.
“Defending coal mining on public lands is utterly incompatible with the Biden administration’s ambitious plans on climate and land conservation,” said Michael Saul, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Beginning an orderly wind-down of the federal coal leasing program is the first step in facing this climate emergency. It’s crucial to put coal-dependent communities on a path toward a sustainable clean energy future.”
“The coal leasing program has been a massive government giveaway to coal corporations at the expense of our public lands, clean air and water, and the stability of our climate,” said Athan Manuel, director of public lands protection at Sierra Club. “Keeping the coal program is a major stain on the Biden administration’s climate and environmental record.”
The Northern Cheyenne Tribe, located in the Powder River basin, faces severe impacts from coal mining and climate change. The tribe has requested consultation regarding the coal leasing program in three separate letters to the Trump and Biden administrations, with no response.
The Biden administration is also facing renewal decisions for 200 coal leases on federal lands over the next four years, with some of the deadlines coming as early as June.