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By Anne Hedges

Ryan Zinke was a climate disaster as Secretary of the Interior. Fortunately, a federal court in Montana recently ruled that he violated the law when he eliminated a moratorium on coal leasing on public lands that had been put in place by Pres. Barack Obama’s Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell. This is huge, considering the Bureau of Land Management estimated that the cumulative greenhouse gas emissions from the suspended coal lease applications would be more than one billion tons per year. The court reimposed the moratorium until the Department of Interior (Interior) analyzes the environmental, social and financial impacts of its elimination. 

When former Sec. Jewell issued the coal leasing moratorium in late 2016, she did so for two primary reasons – coal’s contribution to the climate crisis and the fact that the public was not getting a fair financial return on coal leases on public lands. 

The coal leasing program was adopted in 1979, when knowledge about climate impacts were cursory and the financial requirements of companies who leased public lands to mine coal were minimal. Former Sec. Jewell wanted to make sure taxpayers received a fair return on their public resources.  She placed a moratorium on new leases that would remain in effect until Interior completed a thorough analysis of the program. 

One  of  former  Sec. Zinke’s first acts as Secretary of the Interior in early 2017 was to eliminate the moratorium, direct that coal leases be issued “expeditiously,” and halt the environmental and economic analysis of the program. MEIC, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Citizens for Clean Energy, EcoCheyenne, and other partner organizations, represented by Earthjustice, challenged former Sec. Zinke’s action in federal court in Great Falls.  

In 2019, the court ruled in our favor, directing Interior to analyze the environmental, social, and economic impacts of eliminating the moratorium under the National Environmental Policy Act. Thumbing its nose at the court’s decision and the public’s concerns, Zinke’s Interior released a cursory 35-page analysis that only considered four leases, instead of the full breadth of leases subject to the moratorium which contain 1.8 billion tons of coal near 28 mines in nine states. Former Sec. Zinke further showed his hostility toward public concerns when he said there would be no difference in greenhouse gas emissions or other impacts between the “no action” alternative and full-scale leasing. Then, he limited the public comment period to 15 days, despite repeated requests for more time. Earthjustice returned to court asking it to again overturn former Sec. Zinke’s decision.

When Pres. Joe Biden came into office, we had high hopes that the administration would hold true to its promise to tackle the climate crisis. Unfortunately, his Interior Secretary Deb Haaland initiated the environmental and financial analysis of the coal leasing program, but she failed to reinstate the leasing moratorium. This new court decision will force Interior to consider the profound impacts that leasing coal on public lands will have on the climate, water resources, the environment, and taxpayers’ pocketbooks while suspending coal leasing on public lands. 

MEIC is grateful for our partners in this case: Earthjustice, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, EcoCheyenne, Citizens for Clean Energy, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, and WildEarth Guardians.


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

Read the full issue here.


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