Judge rules sale of federal coal lands requires review

April 22, 2019

A federal judge in Montana ruled that the Trump administration must complete an environmental analysis to support its decision to lift an Obama-era moratorium on coal leasing on public lands, dealing a major blow to the Trump administrations’ efforts to open federal lands to development.

In his ruling, Judge Brian Morris for the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana stopped short of requiring the broad programmatic environmental impact statement that Obama Interior Secretary Sally Jewell had begun, but he ordered Trump officials to initiate some level of National Environmental Policy Act review.

E&E News reported that former Trump Interior chief Ryan Zinke halted the previous administration's review of the coal program and called for expedited coal lease applications and modifications.

"The legal consequences that flow from the Zinke Order are evident," Morris wrote in his ruling.

"With the Zinke Order's implementation, all BLM land became subject to lease applications with terms of 20 years," Morris found, referring to the Bureau of Land Management. "The Zinke Order directed new lease applications to be 'expedit[ed].' The PEIS process immediately stopped without full review of the concerns raised in the Jewell Order."

During oral argument in December, Morris raised concerns about requiring fresh NEPA analyses every time a new administration announces a policy change.

He did not dictate the form that the Trump administration's environmental review must take and reserved further judgment until the government initiates the process.

"Federal Defendants may comply with their NEPA obligations in a manner of ways," Morris wrote.

They could choose to prepare an environmental assessment or a more rigorous EIS, he said.

"If Federal Defendants determine that an EIS would not be necessary, however, Federal Defendants must supply a 'convincing statement of reasons' to explain why the Zinke Order's impacts would be insignificant," Morris wrote.

Environmental challengers will be calling for the administration to reinstate the Obama-era coal ban.

The National Mining Association and the states of Wyoming and Montana intervened to defend the Trump-era policy.

A spokesman for the coal trade association said the group is reviewing the decision and weighing the next steps.

In his ruling, Morris resolved another question he had raised during oral arguments: whether the lawsuit resembled a separate coal leasing challenge previously tossed out by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Judges for the D.C. Circuit last year said they could not require Interior to refresh its 1979 PEIS absent a new agency action.

"The D.C. Circuit did not address a challenge to the Zinke Order," Morris found. "The D.C. Circuit instead limited its analysis to determining whether the continued reliance on outdated information in the 1979 PEIS required the Interior Department to supplement the PEIS with new information."

The federal government could choose to appeal Friday's decision, which would send the case to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

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