Court lifts moratorium on federal coal sales

Associated Press; Colorado Public Radio; National Mining Association; The Hill

February 22, 2024

 A U.S. appeals court on Wednesday struck down a moratorium on coal leasing from federal lands in a move that could open the door to future coal sales.

The ruling from a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is a setback for environmentalists and Democratic lawmakers who worked for years to curtail the federal coal leasing program.

It's the latest decision in a series of legal back-and-forths that date back to 2016 when then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell moved to halt all new coal leasing on federal land as part of a strategy to address climate change.

Yet it’s uncertain how much demand there will be from the mining industry for new leases: Coal production from federal lands has dropped sharply over the past decade after many electric utilities switched to other sources of power generation, such as natural gas and renewables.

More than 260 million tons of coal, or about half of the nation’s total, was mined by private companies from leases on federal land in 2022. That compares with more than 400 million tons of coal mined from federal lands in 2014.

Most of the mining occurs in Western states, including Wyoming, Montana and Colorado.

The leasing moratorium — originally enacted in 2016 under former President Barack Obama — didn’t halt mining. Rather, it prohibited federal lease sales that are often crucial for companies seeking to expand their operations.

The moratorium was rescinded under the administration of former President Donald Trump then revived by a federal district judge in Montana, who in 2022 ordered government officials to conduct a new environmental review before they could hold coal sales on federal lands. That came in a lawsuit led by environmental groups and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, which has fought for decades against coal mining near its southeastern Montana reservation.

But Wednesday’s appeals court ruling said the matter was moot when the 2022 order was issued, because Interior Department officials under President Joe Biden already had revoked Trump’s effort to end the moratorium. The panel of judges noted that a “de facto moratorium” appears to be in place now, since lease sales have been diminishing.

Rich Nolan, National Mining Association president and chief executive officer said, “This is a victory for American-mined energy and we are pleased with the court’s recognition of the need to dismiss this irreparably flawed ruling. With this ruling, important projects can once again advance and support the production of affordable, reliable power to the grid, while creating jobs and economic development across the country, helping federal, state and localities with necessary funding by contributing hundreds of millions each year in revenues to state and local governments.”

Among them is the pending expansion of southwestern Wyoming’s Black Butte coal mine, which was approved by state officials last year and is awaiting a federal decision, according to the industry group.

It's not yet clear how President Biden will respond to Wednesday's ruling or how soon new leasing could resume on federal public land.

Photo from Shutterstock.


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