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Federal court reinstates ban on new coal sales on public land

A Montana judge said the Trump administration’s environmental analysis was flawed and ordered leasing temporarily suspended

A haul truck with a 250-ton capacity carries coal after being loaded from a nearby mechanized shovel at the Spring Creek strip mine near Decker, Mont., on Nov. 15, 2016. (Matthew Brown/AP)

A federal judge on Friday ordered the Interior Department to pause the issuing of new coal leases, handing a victory to climate advocates who for years have fought to restore an Obama-era moratorium on coal mining on federal land.

In his ruling, Judge Brian Morris of the United States District Court for the District of Montana wrote that under the Trump administration, the department failed to study the full environmental effects of permitting more mining, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

Morris’s order reinstates a 2016 freeze on new federal coal lease sales, which President Donald Trump lifted two months after taking office. The move was part of Trump’s effort to fulfill his campaign promise to promote American production of coal.

Friday’s order leaves it to the Biden administration to decide whether to issue a new environmental analysis, which would be required to resume the issuing of leases. An Interior spokesperson said the department is reviewing the decision.

U.S. emissions surged in 2021, putting the nation further off track from its climate targets

Climate advocates have argued that banning coal mining on federal land is an important step to slow down climate change.

Burning coal releases more carbon dioxide than other forms of electricity generation. And though renewable energy and natural gas have begun to replace coal use across the country, it still has a significant foothold in America’s power sector. Last year, a 17 percent surge in coal-fired electricity helped drive an overall increase of 6.2 percent in greenhouse gas emissions compared with the previous year, according to an analysis by the Rhodium Group.

Jenny Harbine, a senior attorney for the advocacy group Earthjustice, said it would be difficult for the Biden administration to justify new leasing given coal’s significant contribution to global warming. She called on Biden officials to end all coal mining on public land.

“This decision is a victory in that it prevents the administration from continuing to lease coal from our federal public lands,” Harbine said. “But it’s a small step in the big picture of what this administration needs to do to make good on its commitments to confront the climate crisis.”

Rich Nolan, president of the National Mining Association, called the judge’s decision “deeply disappointing” and said his organization would appeal the ruling.

“Americans need the energy affordability and energy security buttressed by coal production on federal lands and so do our allies struggling to transition away from Russian energy,” Nolan said in a written statement. “The reimposition of this moratorium couldn’t come at a worse time.”

State officials in Montana and Wyoming, home to the major coal-producing Powder River Basin, had also argued against reinstating the moratorium.

Under Biden, the Interior Department hasn’t sold new coal leases and demand for the fuel has fallen. But there are applications pending before the agency.

Last year, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland revoked the Trump administration’s rollback of the Obama-era coal leasing moratorium and launched a formal review of the federal coal leasing program’s effects on climate change.

But despite activists’ urging, she did not reinstate the moratorium. Under Biden, lawyers for the federal government declined to defend the coal leasing ban. Instead, they argued that environmentalists’ lawsuit, filed in 2017, to restore it should be have been dismissed on technical grounds.

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