This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Environmental groups wasted no time challenging the legality of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's Wednesday order lifting a year-old moratorium on coal leasing on public land.
Represented by Earthjustice, a consortium of groups filed suit Thursday in U.S. District Court in Great Falls, Mont., alleging that the move derails a much-needed overhaul of the federal coal program. It hasn't undergone an environmental review since 1979, when the government was trying to increase reliance on coal for power generation and coal's climate impacts were not understood.
The program now oversees 306 active leases in 11 states, covering 483,000 acres, and appears to be shortchanging taxpayers, the groups' suit states.
"No one voted to pollute our public lands, air or drinking water in the last election, yet the Trump administration is doing the bidding of powerful polluters as nearly its first order of business," said Earthjustice attorney Jenny Harbine.
The lawsuit seeks an injunction against coal leasing until after a review of the leasing program is complete. The plaintiffs include Sierra Club, WildEarth Guardians, Center for Biological Diversity and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, whose ancestral territory includes the Powder River Basin. This basin straddling the Montana-Wyoming state line accounts for 85 percent of federal coal production.
Then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell imposed the moratorium in January 2016, "pausing" the federal leasing program while the Bureau of Land Management overhauls it to ensure U.S. taxpayers are appropriately compensated for the coal and to account for climate impacts of mining and burning it. About 40 percent of the nation's coal comes from federal reserves, which account for 11 percent of U.S. greenhouse emissions.
She said she didn't want Interior locked into long-term contracts with terms that could be determined to be unfair by the review, which was expected to take three years. Interior officials said enough federal coal was under lease to meet the country's needs for 20 years, while financial analysts predicted demand would continue declining.
But President Donald Trump reversed course when he suspended the review in fulfillment of a campaign pledge to bolster the flagging coal industry, which has been under attack from environmental groups bent on replacing coal with renewables and less-polluting sources of energy. On Tuesday, he directed Zinke to lift the moratorium and rescinded other Obama-era regulations aimed at combating climate change associated with fossil fuels.
Zinke said in a news statement Wednesday that his subsequent orders "put America on track to achieve the President's vision for energy independence and bringing jobs back to communities across the country."
Many observers say Trump's orders regarding coal will do little to save mining jobs since market forces are to blame for coal's slide, not government regulation.
But critics of the moratorium and program review complained that they would disrupt production at some coal mines, such as Utah's Coal Hollow mine in Kane County, and cost jobs.
The strip mine operator Alton Coal Co. has longed proposed expanding onto federal land west of Bryce Canyon National Park in anticipation of the day that its private leasehold outside the town of Alton becomes mined out.
The mine operator first proposed leasing 3,600 federal acres back in 2004. But the environmental review dragged for more than a decade, thanks to stiff opposition from environmental groups and concerns raised by the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service over potential impacts to Bryce Canyon and sage grouse habitat.
A draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was out for public comment when the leasing moratorium was issued. Now, Alton Coal has asked the BLM to act on its lease application and finalize the supplemental environmental impact statement that had been pending.
"They are very excited the moratorium has been lifted," said Alton's lawyer, Denise Dragoo. "BLM will publish an EIS that will result in a record of decision which will grant the lease, all or in part, or deny it. Hopefully they will grant the lease and there will be a competitive sale."
Under an exception in the moratorium, Alton last summer applied for an emergency lease on 640 acres on the grounds that it was running out of coal, according to Dragoo. That request was denied, triggering a lawsuit from local county officials.
Joined by the nonprofit Rural Utah Alliance, Kane and Garfield counties are seeking to have the moratorium declared "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion and contrary" to the law. The suit alleged the moratorium put "the economic viability of coal dependent communities at risk."
The program returns more than $1 billion to the treasury, an amount that is fair to taxpayers and in most cases exceeds fair market value, the suit states, citing 2013 reports by Interior's inspector general.
While it appeared Trump's order rendered the lawsuit moot, the counties aren't ready to walk away. "Much of what we want to accomplish was accomplished, but we are still trying to sort out the ramifications of the president's order. We don't know if this is something that will go into immediate effect. There might be a motion of preliminary injunction filed," said their lawyer, Chase Ames of Salt Lake City's Stirba law firm.
Some of the groups suing over Zinke's order lifting the moratorium are also seeking to intervene in Kane County's suit.