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by Derf Johnson

Making major environmental decisions without conducting a full accounting and quantification of the major costs, and only considering the benefits, is not only foolish, it’s illegal.

A recent preliminary MEIC court victory upholds and strengthens this premise. Recently, a U.S. federal magistrate in Montana ruled that an environmental assessment conducted to analyze an expansion of the Spring Creek coal mine was insufficient because it failed to adequately consider the potential climate change impacts associated with expanding the mine. This victory comes on the heels of and explicitly relies upon another recent coal mine expansion victory won by MEIC in 2017 involving the Bull Mountains mine north of Billings.

The Spring Creek mine in southeastern Montana is the state’s largest coal mine in terms of production, at its peak producing close to 20 million tons annually. The mine is owned by Cloud Peak Energy, a coal company that until recently was considered a “pure play,” financially stable company that operated solely within the Powder River Basin. It was thought to be immune from the turmoil of the national coal markets and the downturn in coal production largely experienced in the Appalachian region. However, coal companies are feeling more than a pinch across all regions of the U.S., and Cloud Peak Energy is now getting dragged through the coals (forgive the pun). After a precipitous decline in the last year the New York Stock Exchange provided notice to the company in December that it would delist the company’s stock within six months if its poor stock performance failed to improve. Just last month the company eliminated fifteen salaried positions in its government relations department.

The fiscal freefall of Cloud Peak then begs the question: why would the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) and the U.S. Office of Surface Mining (OSM) approve such a large expansion (approximately 120 million tons of coal over 1,100 acres)? After all, the company is all but certain to declare bankruptcy. One could say that it has the economic prospects of Blockbuster Video at the dawn of the Netflix empire. The truth is that DOI and OSM, at the direction of the Trump Administration, continue to pander to an antiquated and filthy way to produce electricity – one that is ravaging our climate, has no environmental justification, and has unfavorable long-term economic prospects.

In fact, in order to justify such a move, DOI and OSM would have to, as they did, place their “thumb on the scale,” and artificially inflate the economic benefits of continued coal mining while deflating or entirely ignoring both the economic and environmental costs.

Magistrate Cavan stated in his well-reasoned opinion that “because OSM quantified the benefits of the proposed action, it must also quantify the associated costs or offer non-arbitrary reasons for its decision not to.” Indeed, the enormous economic impacts associated with climate disruption should not and cannot be ignored. The magistrates’ recommended decision now goes to the federal district court judge in Billings for final approval.

Shiloh Hernandez with the Western Environmental Law Center deserves much praise for this victory for our shared climate.

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