President Donald Trump’s push for more energy development on federal lands suffered a setback last week when a federal judge ruled that his administration didn’t look at environmental impacts before lifting an Obama-era freeze on new coal leases.
U.S. District Court Judge Brian Morris said Friday the Interior Department violated the National Environmental Protection Act. He requested the agency provide an adequate environmental analysis justifying its decision to lift the moratorium or else it could be reinstated.
Morris’ ruling stemmed from a lawsuit filed by conservation groups, four states and the Northern Cheyenne tribe. The Trump administration ignored coal’s impacts on the climate when it lifted the freeze, according to Earthjustice attorney Jenny Harbine.
“We can’t continue to harm our climate with carbon pollution,” she said. “We can’t continue to poison our water and dirty the air we breathe using our public coal resources.”
The moratorium was implemented in 2016 after the Obama administration called for a thorough review of the coal industry’s effects on the climate and health, as well as whether the royalty rates from mining coal on federal lands were fairly valued.
The industry has been hard hit by market winds in recent years as natural gas and renewable energy have become cheaper and more abundant. But Trump promised to revive the industry during his campaign and ordered his Interior Department to lift the moratorium in March 2017 under then-Secretary Ryan Zinke.
The president favored politics over science, Harbine argued.
“What the administration can’t do is what it’s done time and again — make decisions rashly to fulfill campaign promises without providing any reasonable explanation for those decisions,” she said.
The Interior Department was unavailable for comment but the National Mining Association, a trade group who intervened on behalf of the agency in the lawsuit, said that decisions to lease coal are already subject to multiple environmental reviews under the Federal Coal Leasing Act.
“Secretary Zinke’s directive simply ceased a voluntary and wholly unnecessary review and resumed the faithful implementation of the Federal Coal Leasing Act,” Hal Quinn, president and CEO of the group, wrote in a statement.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.