Lawsuit pursues documents on Trump administration’s ties to coal execs

Lawsuit seeks information on Trump’s reversal of coal leasing on public lands.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke revoked an Obama administration order that halted most new coal-leasing activities pending a comprehensive review of the program. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke revoked an Obama administration order that halted most new coal-leasing activities pending a comprehensive review of the program. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

The Center for Biological Diversity sued the Trump administration on Wednesday for failing to provide public records about meetings between the Department of the Interior and energy industry executives. The meetings were reportedly about reversing the Obama administration’s rule on coal leasing on federal public lands.

The conservation group filed a Freedom of Information Act request in March after Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke revoked an order requiring the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to halt most new coal-leasing activities pending the completion of a comprehensive review of the program.

The lawsuit is seeking public records on the Trump administration’s alleged “collusion” with the coal industry. The group’s FOIA request seeks all communications between top department officials and the fossil fuel industry.

The BLM, a division of the Interior Department, ignored the request and is now months overdue with a response as required by federal law, according to the group. In a separate response, the Interior Department described the group’s FOIA as a “complex” request.

“If Trump and Zinke had nothing to hide, they’d comply with our simple request to release meeting records,” Bill Snape, senior counsel with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement Wednesday. “Instead the Trump administration continues to plot with fossil fuel executives in secret, making decisions that hurt public health and affect the future of all Americans.”

The amended lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, argues that the Interior Department and the BLM “are unlawfully withholding the records by failing to conduct an adequate search for responsive records for which no FOIA exemptions apply.”

In June, the group filed a similar lawsuit against the BLM for public records of closed-door meetings between its officials and energy industry executives over the reversal of the Obama administration’s actions on coal leasing on public lands. The amended complaint, filed Wednesday, adds the Interior Department as a co-defendant and updates the factual allegations to detail the lack of a response from both the Interior Department and the BLM to the FOIA request, Snape told ThinkProgress.

Zinke, who received significant campaign contributions from the coal, oil, and gas industries as a member of Congress, ended review of the leasing program in March and directed the Interior Department “to process coal lease applications and modifications expeditiously.” His order followed numerous accounts of “clandestine meetings” between top Trump administration officials and coal industry lobbyists, the group said.

Zinke reportedly spent much of his first two months in office meeting with energy and other industry groups. The secretary’s schedule, obtained through a separate FOIA request, show meetings with oil and gas producers. Zinke, who was confirmed by the Senate on March 1, held more than a half-dozen meetings with executives from several companies, including BP America, Chevron and ExxonMobil, in March and April.

Several of these discussions covered executive actions the administration would later take in an effort to reverse Obama administration energy and environmental policies, the Washington Post reported.

Zinke’s change of course on coal leasing came after President Donald Trump signed an executive order to repeal federal environmental policies and restrictions on energy production.

Under the Obama administration, the BLM put the coal leasing moratorium in place in January 2016, so a comprehensive review of the federal coal program could be completed. The review — the first since 1979— was launched to help ensure that taxpayers are receiving a fair return for use of their natural resources.