The first shots have been fired in what’s likely to be a long, bitter war over the environment between conservationists and President Trump.
It started Wednesday when a broad coalition of groups sued the Trump administration in federal court, barely 24 hours after the president signed an executive order that lifted a moratorium on new coal leases on federal land.
Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, WildEarth Guardians, Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity and others call the directive illegal because it allows a massive area of land to be disrupted without any federally required study of the potential environmental impact.
They were joined by the Northern Cheyenne Tribe in Montana, whose president said the tribe would bear the brunt of the decision to resume leasing. More than 425 million tons of coal are located near its reservation at the Decker and Spring Creek mines.
On Thursday, environmentalists also challenged the administration’s decision to move forward with the Keystone XL oil pipeline. This second federal suit claims the State Department relied on “an outdated and incomplete environmental impact statement” to comply with a 60-day decision deadline set by Trump.
The president has said both actions were taken to harness American energy and create jobs. Native communities fear the changes will come at their expense.
“The Nation is concerned that coal mining near the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation will impact our pristine air and water quality, will adversely affect our sacred cultural properties and traditional spiritual practices and ultimately destroy the traditional way of life that the Nation has fought to preserve for centuries,” said L. Jace Killsback, president of the Northern Cheyenne.
Environmental groups have been raising money and preparing to battle Trump since his election, and the fight over coal is expected to be the first of many. The president already has moved on a campaign promise to dismantle parts of the federal government, with recent proposals to dramatically cut funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department, the nation’s steward for public lands.
“No one voted to pollute our public lands, air or drinking water in the last election, yet the Trump administration is doing the bidding of powerful polluters as nearly its first order of business,” Jenny Harbine, a lead attorney for the activist group Earthjustice, said Wednesday. “Our legal system remains an important backstop against the abuses of power we’ve witnessed over the course of the past two months.”
The coalition may have company in its legal challenge. Several governors and attorneys general have indicated a willingness to take the Trump administration to court over the new executive order and other environmental policies. California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) said in an interview that he was prepared to sue if the EPA revokes the waiver it granted his state in 2012 to set more stringent fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks built for model years 2022 to 2025.
Trump recently announced that the agency would revisit the federal carbon standards for that fleet, prompting California to announce it would press ahead with its own rule.
“I fought the Bush administration as California’s attorney general and will continue defending the California law,” Brown said, adding that climate change ranks as “an existential threat” that must be addressed. “Not out of any political position, but in recognition that the world is at risk and that the lives of real people are endangered.”
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), who successfully challenged the administration’s first immigration executive order, said he and his state’s attorney general are assessing whether to return to court in light of the new executive order on climate. “We’re looking at some litigation options,” he said.
At a recent conference, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) emphasized the importance of preserving public lands. “As governor of a state with millions of acres of public land,” he said, “I will not stand idly by if Congress or other outside special interests try to erode the birthright of all Americans.”
But Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have powerful allies, including Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert (R), whose office sued over the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan to regulate greenhouse gases and ripped the rule that led to a moratorium on coal leases.
“Utah and many public-land and energy-producing states think that the Clean Power Plan was a significant overreach. It was really designed to kill off carbon-based fuels and particularly coal,” he said recently. “The standards that they were trying to put in place, there is not even technology that allows you to meet those standards.”
Under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, established in 1970, conservationists and other organizations can fight any government attempt to take administrative action without following proper administrative procedures. “These regulations are binding on all federal agencies,” according to a NEPA fact sheet on the EPA’s website. “The regulations address the procedural provisions … and the administration of the NEPA process, including the preparation of environmental impact statements.”
Following Trump’s action, Zinke announced Wednesday that he signed two “secretarial orders to advance American energy independence.” One was to “foster responsible development of coal, oil, gas and renewable energy on federal and tribal lands.” The lengthy statement did not mention NEPA or the environmental study it requires.
In Montana, that’s where the coalition lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Great Falls took aim. “In repealing the moratorium … the Secretary of the Interior, Department of Interior and Bureau of Land Management opened the door to new coal leasing and its attendant consequences without first performing an environmental review.”
Under the Obama administration, Interior worked for more than a year to evaluate the impact of coal mining and to determine if the benefit was worth the environmental harm. With U.S. power plants using less coal, companies have laid off workers and entered into bankruptcy proceedings. And with abundant coal reserves expected to last two decades even without new mining, the department decided on a moratorium.
The decision was controversial in Wyoming, Montana, Nevada and other states that rely on coal revenue mined on federal land, but it was not made without a scientific review, public hearings, comments and a written rule that takes months to finalize. Trump and Zinke’s decisions were made virtually with the stroke of a pen, their challengers claim.
Zinke said his action aligned with the president’s “vision for energy independence and bringing jobs back to communities across the country.” He said that “for far too many local communities, energy on public lands has been more of a missed opportunity and has failed to include local consultation and partnership.”
His detractors say Zinke is guilty of the same, acting without consulting scientists and environmentalists and without following the proper administrative steps.
Before the department acted in late 2015, the federal coal program that leases land for mining had not been reviewed in nearly 40 years. Over that time, studies showed that coal-fired fuel produced a dirty mix of particulate matter and chemicals such as mercury, benzene and radium that cause respiratory illnesses and heart disease.
As part of the Obama administration’s review, the Bureau of Land Management was examining whether the program could ensure that land damaged by mining could be restored by companies, commitments to lower pollution could be met and companies could continue to profit. Trump’s order ended that assessment.
“The moratorium was a common-sense policy move to fix our federal coal program, and Trump’s actions likely mean that program will stay broken,” Shannon Hughes, who works in the climate and energy program at WildEarth Guardians, said in a statement. “Managing public lands and public interest to bail out energy executives is nothing short of corruption. A moratorium won’t help a dying coal industry, but it will help its CEOs line their pockets.”
From southeastern Montana, Art Hayes is tracking the Trump administration’s action with keen interest. His 9,000-acre ranch, which has been in his family since the late 1800s, is in an area that gets only about 12 inches of rain a year and depends on water from the Tongue River for irrigation. It’s also downstream from the Decker Mine, which has pending lease applications that could move forward now that the moratorium has been lifted. Hayes worries about the safety of his water supply.
“We totally depend on it,” Hayes said Wednesday. “The river is everything. … We don’t have much water here, and it’s precious.”
Brady Dennis contributed to this report.