BILLINGS, Mont. – Four states that say burning coal will hurt their residents as it makes climate change worse are trying to stop the Trump administration in federal court from selling vast reserves of the fuel that are beneath public lands.
Attorneys for California, New Mexico, New York and Washington argue the coal sales have been shortchanging taxpayers because of low royalty rates and cause pollution that puts the climate and public health at risk.
The states were joined by conservation groups and Montana’s Northern Cheyenne tribe in a lawsuit that seeks to revive a coal leasing moratorium imposed under President Barack Obama. The moratorium blocked new lease sales from federal lands that hold billions of tons of the fuel.
U.S. District Judge Brian Morris, who was appointed by Obama, is presiding over a Thursday hearing on whether the moratorium should be reinstated.
The Trump administration said in court filings that ending the moratorium last year was of critical importance to the economy. That claim comes despite the slow pace of lease sales in recent years and a precipitous drop in demand for the heavily-polluting fuel.
U.S. lands in Western states, including Wyoming, Montana, Utah and Colorado, are a major source of coal for mining companies. There are 7.4 billion tons of the fuel in roughly 300 leases administered by the Bureau of Land Management .
Morris recently ruled in a separate case that the administration must consider reduced coal mining in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana to help combat climate change.
The judge has played the role of spoiler to Trump on another Obama administration policy reversal – the contentious Keystone XL oil sands pipeline from Canada. Trump approved the pipeline last year, but Morris blocked it temporarily in March. The judge said further environmental reviews were needed for the line to comply with federal laws.
Some of those same laws are at the center of the coal moratorium dispute.
The states and their allies want push to stop further leasing and resume a sweeping review of the program’s environmental impacts. Government attorneys and the National Mining Association say the review started under Obama was a voluntary step and the Trump administration is within its rights to end it.
“We view this as a legal issue and believe this is an open and shut case,” said Conor Bernstein with the mining association, which has intervened in the case.
Growing concerns over climate change have put a spotlight on the once-obscure coal leasing program, which has gone largely unchanged and not been through a major environmental review since 1979.
Companies have mined about 4 billion tons of coal from federal reserves in the past decade, contributing $10 billion to federal and state coffers through royalties and other payments. Backers of the leasing program say those revenues would be at risk over the long term if it ended.
The Obama administration blocked the sale of new leases in 2016 out of concerns over climate-changing greenhouse gases from burning coal and to review royalty rates paid by mining companies for federal coal.
Federal officials and members of Congress have said for years the royalty rates were shortchanging taxpayers. Under Obama, the U.S. Interior Department was considering raising those royalty rates to offset the effects of climate change from burning coal.
On an order from Trump, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke withdrew the moratorium in March 2017. The former Montana congressman said the Obama administration’s environmental review would cost “many millions of dollars” and that improvements to the program could be made without a full-scale environmental study.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said Zinke’s actions fly in the face of the dire consequences of climate change for the U.S. economy as outlined in a government report released last month.
“He ignored the law in opening the door to expanded coal leasing without taking a hard look at the environmental consequences,” Becerra said in a statement. “The rule of law can be a stubborn thing for those who don’t wish to respect it.”
After the Trump administration ended the moratorium, Zinke appointed a committee to review the royalty rates. Critics contend he’s stacked the panel with industry-friendly representatives interested in maintaining the status quo.