Montana Judge Reinstates Formerly Defunct Ban on Coal-Leasing
Following the commission of the Coal leasing Amendments Act of 1976, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was entrusted with the obligation of overseeing the operations of coal leasing: the process through which the rights to extract coal from federal lands are negotiated with the highest bidder. BLM is obligated to lease coal at a fair market value, as well as competitively, meaning that any interested party can bid on a lease. As anxieties over federal land conservation evolve, a federal judge in Montana District Court has ruled to reinstate a moratorium, tossed during the Trump administration, that will halt all such activity until BLM completes a more thorough environmental analysis. The revival of this Obama-era plan developed out of heightened consideration for tribal concerns, and the repercussions of this decision will inevitably have a significant impact on tribal lands.
Judge Brian Morris’ ruling does not offer new legislation, but rather reestablishes a 2016 order by former Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewel, which was designed to mitigate coal’s contribution to climate change by halting coal leasing wholly. The following year, Trump-era Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, moved to scrap Jewel’s order in favor of continued coal negotiations. Judge Morris’ found the decision by Secretary Zinke to be a direct violation of the National Environmental Policy Act and asserted that a more comprehensive review of Zinke’s revocation of the coal leasing moratorium must be conducted before BLM will be allowed to continue its duty of facilitating coal-leasing.
The Department of the Interior is responsible for managing over 570 million acres of federal land containing coal resources. As part of this obligation, the Department uses BLM to facilitate the process which enables third parties to access this coal. The process begins with planning, during which, BLM evaluates federal lands for potential coal extraction, taking into consideration how the government may own the coal underground while a private owner retains possession (through a leasehold) of the surface real estate.
Judge Morris admits that his decision to reinstate the coal-leasing ban was largely influenced by a 2019 lawsuit involving the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, and others. The Sierra Club convinced the court that the Trump Administration infringed upon protections provided by the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The plaintiffs in this case pointed to how the Administration unreasonably changed the compliance requirements for section 7 of the ESA, which requires federal agencies to ensure that their actions do not jeopardize the existence of any species or habitats. Judge Morris agreed with the plaintiff’s assessment, and stated that the lifting of the coal-leasing ban, executed by Secretary Zilke, necessitated a review of the National Environmental Policy Act.
Naturally, coal coalitions received Morris’ conclusion with tremendous dissatisfaction, and the industry, as a whole, is expected to suffer considerable profit cuts. The National Mining Association released an impassioned statement on the matter: “This is a deeply disappointing decision with energy-driven inflation, energy affordability and energy security top concerns for Americans. The reimposition of this moratorium couldn’t come at a worse time.” Environmental groups, on the other hand, expressed enthusiasm for the ruling. Managing attorney for Earthjustice, Jenny Harbine, commented, “While this ruling reinstates the moratorium on new coal leasing on public lands, the Biden administration must go further by urgently phasing out the existing coal leases that are destroying our planet. There is no room to continue producing coal in a climate emergency.”
An entirely distinctive perspective on the ruling can be observed via the responses of native tribes throughout the country. “The Tribe has fought and sacrificed to protect our homelands for generations, and our lands and waters mean everything to us,” said President Serena Wetherelt of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. “We are thrilled that the court is requiring what we have always asked for: serious consideration of the impacts of the federal coal leasing program on the Tribe and our way of life.” These impacts that President Wetherhelt references stem from the fact that Native American reservations in the U.S. represent only 2 percent of the land but hold approximately 20 percent of the country’s fossil fuel reserves. Together, coal, oil and natural gas on Native reservations are worth more than $1.5 trillion, as reported by the Council of Energy Resource Tribes. While some have proposed the privatization and exploitation of these resources for their economic potential, many indigenous leaders believe that preservation of native lands far outweighs the revenue capabilities.
Judge Morris’ ruling serves as a major step for the Biden Administration to remain on track to fulfill its promise of ending federal fossil fuel-leasing. The remaining efforts that will determine the future of coal-leasing are in the hands of the Bureau of Land Management, as the bureau works towards completing an environmental analysis of the nation’s federal land.