Environmental groups win court battle over approach to climate analysis of coal mining

Bureau of Land Management failed to conduct proper climate analysis of coal leases, court rules.

The coal leases are part of an expansion of the Black Thunder Mine in Wright, Wyoming. CREDIT: AP Photo/Matthew Brown
The coal leases are part of an expansion of the Black Thunder Mine in Wright, Wyoming. CREDIT: AP Photo/Matthew Brown

A federal appeals court ruled Friday that the Bureau of Land Management failed to adequately consider the climate impacts of several coal leases in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, delivering a major win to environmental groups who challenged the agency’s environmental analysis of the leases.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stated the BLM, part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, violated federal law by skipping in-depth analysis of the potential climate impacts from four coal leases that would extend the production life of the nation’s two most productive coal mines, the North Antelope Rochelle mine and the Black Thunder mine. The two surface mines sit on federal land in northeast Wyoming.

In 2012, the Sierra Club and WildEarth Guardians brought a lawsuit against the BLM, arguing the agency failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act when it concluded that issuing the leases would not result in higher national carbon dioxide emissions.

“Burning coal has consequences, and the court’s decision today recognizes that our environment is more important than pandering to an obsolete industry,” Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, said Friday in a statement.

A district court upheld BLM’s decision to issue the leases. But the environmental groups in January 2016 appealed the case to the 10th Circuit. In overturning the lower court’s ruling, the appeals court concluded the BLM’s analysis was arbitrary and capricious and that its decision-making record for the coal leases did not include any clear support for its conclusion.

The decision comes one month after a federal judge blocked a proposed expansion of an underground coal mine in Montana because the project’s climate change impacts were not adequately considered by the federal Office of Surface Mining. In the Montana case, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled the agency inflated the economic benefits of the Signal Peak Energy’s Bull Mountain coal mine while minimizing its environmental impact. The judge ordered the company to stop mining in the proposed expansion area pending further studies.

In Friday’s decision, the appeals court remanded the Wyoming case to BLM to revise its environmental impact statements and records of decision. The court, however, decided not to do away with the leases. The court noted that three out of the four leases are actively being mined.

Although there are more than 1,000 coal mines in the United States, the North Antelope Rochelle and Black Thunder mines currently produce about 20 percent of the coal used to generate electricity in the country. The mine expansions would add two billion tons to the nation’s total coal production. The Sierra Club and WildEarth Guardians stated in their lawsuit that this additional two billion tons of coal would drastically increase the amount of carbon emitted by coal-burning power plants.

While the court’s decision may not significantly affect the Wyoming leases, it “will have a dramatic impact on how the BLM and the Department of the Interior assess future land leases for fossil fuels — giving the public a clearer picture of how public land used for extraction by fossil fuel companies will impact the most significant environmental threat facing the world today,” the Sierra Club and WildEarth Guardians said.

“Today’s decision sheds new light on the destructive consequences of leasing our most precious lands to corporate polluters who value their balance sheets more than public health,” Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said in a statement. “Climate change is the most pressing environmental issue we face, and this decision recognizes a simple truth: BLM’s choices matter. It can no longer stick its head in the sand and ignore its contribution to the climate problem.”