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By Derf Johnson

While leaders and decision-makers in the U.S. and across the world are taking proactive, positive steps to directly address the climate crisis by encouraging a reduction in fossil fuel use and a transition toward clean, renewable energy resources, the same cannot be said for the leadership of Montana. In fact, not by a long shot. Recently, the Gianforte Administration’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) approved a massive coal mine expansion at the Rosebud Mine that, if allowed to proceed, would undoubtedly further pollute water in southeast Montana, exacerbate the climate crisis, and delay the necessary transition to clean energy sources in Montana. Predictably, the approved expansion failed to fully account for its potential impacts on Montana’s water and sensitive prairie streams and entirely ignored its inevitable contribution to climate pollution. Recognizing these failures, Earthjustice, on behalf of MEIC and Sierra Club, recently filed two separate legal challenges.

The Rosebud Mine is the sole fuel source for the Colstrip coal-fired power plant. The mine feeds the two remaining Colstrip units (Units 3 & 4) with approximately six million tons of coal annually. If allowed to proceed, the expansion would allow the mine operator Westmoreland Rosebud Mining, LLC, to strip-mine an additional 62.3 million tons of coal from approximately 2,500 acres in the headwaters of Lee Coulee over the course of 21 years. In addition to carbon emissions, the strip mine expansion would destroy everything in its path and have incredibly detrimental impacts for the adjacent lands, water, and wildlife.

Notably, despite an overwhelming wealth of scientific knowledge on climate change and greenhouse gases dating to the early 19th century, the DEQ not only failed to evaluate the coal mine expansion’s contribution to climate change – it purposely ignored them. Even though MEIC directly submitted data on climate change to DEQ through official comments, DEQ refused to assess the climate impacts in its environmental review for the project, asserting that state law prohibited it from doing so. DEQ subsequently approved the expansion in May 2022. The egregious failure to even provide reference to the monolithic problem of global climate change, much less to actually analyze the project’s contributions to that problem and potentially mitigate or prevent its impacts, is a complete abdication of the DEQ’s mission and responsibilities under the constitution.

This summer, Earthjustice, on behalf of MEIC and Sierra Club, took DEQ to court. First, we challenged DEQ’s approval of the mine expansion under the Montana strip mining law (the Montana Strip and Underground Mine Reclamation Act) for failing to protect our water resources. We filed this case before the Gianforte-appointed Board of Environmental Review. Then we filed a complaint in state district court on the basis that DEQ’s decision violated the Montana Environmental Policy Act and the Constitution of Montana and threatens the well-being and fundamental rights of all Montanans. It is an abject failure for any governmental entity to ignore climate change when dealing with the permitting of super polluters such as coal mines and coal-fired power plants.

DEQ’s approval of this and another recent expansion of the mine will allow the mining of more than 130 million tons of coal, which would be the equivalent of over 200 million tons of greenhouse gases when burned. This is roughly equivalent to the greenhouse gases produced from burning more than 22 billion gallons of gasoline. The climate simply cannot afford such a dramatic increase.


This article was published in the September 2022 issue of Down To Earth. 

Read the full issue here.


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