Signal Peak Energy’s proposed 160 Mt (176 million st) expansion of its Bull Mountain coal mine in Montana was blocked by a federal judge who criticized U.S. officials for downplaying the climate change impacts of the project and inflating its economic benefits.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy issued an order barring Signal Peak Energy from mining in the 28 km2 (11-sq mile) expansion area at the Bull Mountain coal mine pending a new round of environmental studies.
The Associated Press reported that Molloy ruled that the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining must consider the environmental effects of shipping the fuel to customers in Asia and from the greenhouse gases and other pollutants emitted when the fuel is burned to generate electricity.
It’s not the first time that the courts have made the case that the effects of greenhouse gas emissions need to be taken into accounts. Courts in Colorado and Montana previously have issued similar rulings. In those cases, the expansions ultimately were allowed to proceed following further environmental review.
A number of environmental groups filed a lawsuit in 2015 seeking to stop the mine expansion and argued that the government did not look closely enough at the effects of the expansion on waterways, air pollution and the health of people who live along the coal's shipping routes.
Federal mining officials said the proposed expansion would contribute almost $24 million annually in tax revenues.
They also said there would be no additional environmental impacts from burning more coal from Bull Mountain because its customers would simply go somewhere else if the expansion were not approved.
But Molloy rejected the claim.
“This conclusion is illogical, and places the (Interior Department’s) thumb on the scale by inflating the benefits of the action while minimizing its impacts,” the judge wrote.
Bull Mountain, located near Roundup, is a major employer in central Montana with more than 250 workers at the underground mine and a coal preparation plant on the site. As much as 95 percent of its coal has been exported in past years, to South Korea, Japan and the Netherlands, according to court volumes.
The mine's production volumes dropped sharply in recent years as overseas coal markets have been in decline. Signal Peak extracted 5.1 Mt (5.6 million st) of coal last year, down by 35 percent since peaking at 7.9 Mt (8.7 million st) in 2013, according to company filings with the U.S. Mine Health and Safety Administration.
Under the proposed expansion, the company anticipated mining up to 10.8 Mt/a (12 million stpy).