Coal Leasing Program Does Not Need Climate Review, Federal Court Rules

Published July 30, 2018

A federal appeals court handed President Donald Trump a victory by rejecting environmentalists’ arguments the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) must evaluate potential climate change impact when leasing federal land for coal mining.

A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit unanimously ruled DOI is not required to update its 1979 environmental impact analysis of the federal coal program to include consideration of the climate impact of carbon dioxide emissions from coal use.

New No Actions

The court determined the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) does not require a new environmental impact statement if the activity governed by the policy has not substantially changed, which the court said is true of coal leasing.

Writing for the court, Judge Harry Edwards, a Jimmy Carter appointee, says an existing government program needs an updated environmental impact statement only if the program has substantially changed since completion of the original analysis required under NEPA.

“Appellants have failed to identify any specific pending action, apart from the program’s continued existence, that qualifies as a ‘major federal action’ under NEPA,” wrote Edwards. “The fact that actions continue to occur in compliance with the program does not render the original action incomplete. Accordingly, the department’s NEPA obligation for the Federal Coal Management Program terminated with its adoption in 1979.”

Reversing Obama’s Policy

The ruling is a setback for environmental activists who have been trying to end the federal government’s coal leasing program.

About 40 percent of the nation’s coal is produced on federal land, mined mainly in western states such as Montana and Wyoming.

As part of his climate change policies, former President Barack Obama imposed a moratorium on new federal coal leases in 2016, during which time his administration was to begin a new environmental review of the federal coal leasing program, including an assessment of its effect on climate change.

At Trump’s direction, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke lifted the moratorium in March 2017, shortly after taking office.

“We feel strongly that the current process on reviewing coal is appropriate,” Zinke said in a press release announcing the end of the moratorium.

‘Frivolous Litigation’

The Western Organization of Resource Councils and Friends of the Earth filed a lawsuit challenging the decision to end the moratorium.

DOI said the court’s ruling vindicates the Trump administration’s decision to renew coal leasing without considering purported effects on climate change.

“For the second time, a federal judge proved that the environmental special interest groups are only interested in wasting taxpayer dollars on frivolous litigation,” Interior spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said shortly after the court announced its ruling. “The department will continue to run a responsible coal leasing program that supports jobs and economic vitality for rural communities.”

‘A Superb Development’

The court’s ruling vindicates President Trump’s efforts to foster U.S. energy dominance, says Fred Palmer, a senior fellow with The Heartland Institute, which publishes Environment & Climate News.

“The DC circuit court’s refusal to consider an environmental challenge to federal coal leasing on climate change grounds is a superb development,” said Palmer. “With the court’s action in this case, it is fair to say even in Washington, DC there are limits to judicial activism on climate change grounds, so praise to the court for embracing common sense and future coal development.

“As part of President Trump’s goal of establishing U.S. energy dominance, his administration is moving to preserve coal plants to protect our national security, to develop new technologies enabling coal to be used as a boiler fuel with near-zero criteria pollutants emitted, and to establish new uses and markets for coal,” Palmer said. “Though the media and radical environmentalists say otherwise, coal remains vital to our country’s success, and the DC circuit court’s decision should be embraced as a reminder we must protect its use.”

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute.