In a court filing on Thursday, the Biden administration chose to maintain a Trump-era decision that abandoned the Obama administration’s coal leasing moratorium on public lands. The administration has argued that it is reviewing the program but has refused to reinstate a moratorium to prevent new leasing before an adequate environmental review is completed. At the same time, the administration continues to process applications for new coal leases as U.S. consumption of coal rose 14% in 2021.
The administration asked the court not to rule on alleged legal violations with its coal leasing program. But the tribal and conservation organizations challenging that program note that the administration has not taken action to stop the air, water, and climate harm from it. The coal industry and states of Montana and Wyoming continue to defend the Trump-era leasing policy in court while the Biden administration has refused to take a meaningful position.
Commenting on the news, Jenny Harbine, managing attorney for Earthjustice’s Northern Rockies office, said:
“The Biden administration cannot have it both ways on coal. While they seem to recognize that it is indefensible to continue to allow coal leasing on public lands, they are also refusing to do the bare minimum by reinstating the Obama-era coal leasing moratorium. President Biden came into office promising to be a climate champion, but 6 years after President Obama paused our nation’s coal leasing we are now taking steps in the wrong direction. There is no place for the continuation of one of the world’s worst sources of climate heating pollution in this administration.
“The Biden administration is effectively outsourcing the defense of their coal policy to the coal industry and coal-producing states. Its failure to drive this train that’s still moving full steam ahead is more than inconvenient; it’s likely to lead to a train wreck.”
In 2017, the Department of the Interior reversed the Obama-era moratorium and, in 2019, Earthjustice and a coalition of conservation groups, states, and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe won a legal challenge to that policy. Earthjustice represented the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Citizens for Clean Energy, Montana Environmental Information Center, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, WildEarth Guardians, and Defenders of Wildlife. The court required the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to conduct an environmental review, under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), before lifting the coal leasing moratorium. However, the Trump-era BLM’s analysis refused to consider the full impact of that choice, instead analyzing only the impact of allowing six coal leases to move forward, including the Alton coal mine expansion in Utah, which a federal judge in Utah determined was approved illegally by the Trump administration. The BLM’s truncated environmental analysis applies to only six federal coal leases, so the groups went back to court in 2020 to challenge it.
Last year, the Biden administration chose to maintain the Trump-era policy ending the coal leasing moratorium. In May of 2021, tribal and environmental groups filed an opening brief challenging the Biden administration’s decision to defend continued coal leasing on public lands.
In a filing just last week, the Biden administration’s BLM defended two Trump-era resource management plans that failed to comply with a court order to account for impacts from burning publicly-owned coal, including on public health, and to consider alternatives that limit coal leasing in the Powder River Basin — the largest coal-producing region in the country.