A dragline moves rocks across a coal seam at the Spring Creek Mine in Decker, Mont. in this April 4, 2013 file photo former President Barack Obama and then under former President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, FILE)
Bills, Mon. (AP) — A federal judge on Friday reinstated a moratorium on coal leases from states imposed under former President Barack Obama and then former President Donald Trump, in an order criticizing the already ailing coal industry. It was a heavy blow.
US District Judge Brian Morris’ decision requires government officials to conduct a new environmental assessment before resuming sales of state coal. Morris blamed the Trump administration’s previous review of the program for not adequately accounting for climate damage from coal’s greenhouse gas emissions and other impacts.
About half of the country’s annual coal production — about 260 million tons last year — is leased by private companies on state lands, mostly in western states like Wyoming, Montana and Colorado.
Some coal leases have been sold in recent years after a sharp drop in fuel demand. But industry opponents have urged Morris to revive the Obama-era moratorium to ensure it doesn’t return in the form of wildfires, droughts, rising sea levels and other climate change impacts. .
Burning coal to generate electricity remains a major source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US, even after many power plants have shut down over the past decade due to pollution and changing economic conditions.
According to government figures, the coal program brought approximately $400 million to federal and state coffers in 2021 through royalties and other payments. It supports thousands of jobs and has been fiercely defended by industry officials, Republicans in Congress and officials in coal-producing states.
President Joe Biden’s first action in his first week in office was to suspend the sale of oil and gas leases – a move later blocked by a federal judge – and he is facing pressure from environmental groups to take similar action on coal . had to do
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The government launched a review of climate damage from coal mining on public lands last year when it expanded its investigation to include government sales of fossil fuels that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. However, no changes were announced as a result of this review.
“This decision gives the Biden administration an opportunity to meet its commitment to address the climate crisis seriously,” said EarthJustice attorney Jenny Harbin, who represented environmental groups and the North Cheyenne tribe in the case. “There has been no progress in improving the program or taking the necessary actions to allow existing leases to expire.”
The Northern Cheyenne Reservation in southeast Montana is near several large open pit mines. Tribal members have long resisted further development. Tribal President Serena Wetheralt said in a statement that Biden and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland must fulfill their trust obligations and keep a close eye on the impact of the U.S. federal state energy program.
“Our land and water is all we care about,” Wetheralt said.
Interior Department officials are reviewing the verdict, spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said.
National Mining Association President Rich Nolan said the industry lobby group will appeal Friday’s decision.
“This is a deeply disappointing decision because energy-related inflation, energy affordability and energy security are top concerns for Americans,” Nolan said. “The denial of access to cheap, secure energy during an energy affordability crisis is deeply troubling.”
Officials in Montana and Wyoming intervened on the federal government’s side and spoke out against resuming the moratorium.
A spokesman for Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen said the Biden administration’s defense of the federal coal program was simply “half-hearted” because of its close ties to environmentalists. Knudsen spokeswoman Kyler Nerrison said the decision is an example of environmentalists using federal laws to endlessly delay energy development.
According to a 2018 report by the U.S. Geological Survey, federal states’ extraction and burning of fossil fuels produces 1.4 billion metric tons (1.3 billion metric tons) of the greenhouse gas equivalent of carbon dioxide annually. This equates to about a quarter of all US carbon emissions.
Obama’s Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell suspended coal sales in 2016 largely over climate concerns. After Trump’s Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke revived the program in 2017, California, New York, New Mexico and the state of Washington sued. Northern Cheyenne, which is affiliated with the Sierra Club, and other environmental groups also filed suit.
In 2017 and 2018, the most recent years for which data was available, the U.S. government sold 134 million tons of coal leases on public land in six states, according to the Interior Department. This is a relatively small amount compared to previous years, such as 2011 and 2012, when Wyoming alone sold more than 2 billion tons.
Demand for coal has fallen sharply as many utilities have switched to natural gas or renewable energy for power generation.
Follow Brown on Twitter: @MatthewBrownAP
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