A federal court has reimposed an Obama-era freeze on coal leasing from federal lands after it was axed under President Donald Trump in a bid to raise domestic energy production.
However, the judge left the door open to resuming the coal leases if a more extensive environmental review is done.
In a Friday ruling (pdf), U.S. District Judge Brian Morris faulted the Trump-era review of the coal leasing program for limiting the environmental impact review to “just” three issues: greenhouse gas emissions, socioeconomic impacts, and water quality.
“The Court determines that such a limited analysis fails to consider ‘all direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts’ of re-starting the federal coal-leasing program,” Morris wrote in the ruling.
The judge said the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) tried to curtail the potential environmental impacts of coal leases in its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review, calling the bureau’s decision “arbitrary and capricious.”
Morris also objected to BLM evaluating only four approved leases under the program, calling it “insufficient.”
In the ruling, the judge said that the coal leasing program would be put on hold “until the completion of sufficient NEPA review analyzing revocation of the moratorium.”
Interior Department spokesperson Melissa Schwartz told The Associated Press that officials are reviewing the ruling.
In January 2016, in a decision known as the Jewell Order, the Department of the Interior put a temporary freeze on leasing federal land for the purpose of mining coal, in part over concerns about climate change.
“Given serious concerns raised about the federal coal program, we’re taking the prudent step to hit pause on approving significant new leases so that decisions about those leases can benefit from the recommendations that come out of the review,” said then-Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, an appointee of former President Barack Obama.
President Trump championed domestic fossil fuel production as a bulwark against energy dependency on foreign countries
In March 2017, Trump reversed the freeze in a sweeping executive order that also undid other Obama-era climate policies.
Announcing that “my administration is putting an end to the war on coal,” Trump said at the time.
“With today’s executive action, I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” he added.
Under Democrat President Joe Biden, a review of coal leasing impacts on climate change and taxpayers was launched in April 2021, but the Trump-era decision to pull the plug on the Jewell Order was not reversed—until now.
National Mining Association President Rich Nolan said in a statement that the industry group would appeal the ruling, citing the imperative of energy supplies that are cheap and secure.
“This is a deeply disappointing decision with energy-driven inflation, energy affordability, and energy security top concerns for Americans,” Nolan said.
“Denying access to affordable, secure energy during an energy affordability crisis is deeply troubling,” he continued.
“Americans need the energy affordability and energy security buttressed by coal production on federal lands.”
In 2017 and 2018, the most recent years of available data, the U.S. government sold leases for 134 million tons of coal on public land in six states, according to Interior Department figures.
Environmental groups hailed the court’s decision and called on the Biden administration to go further and terminate existing coal leases.
“This is a significant victory for our climate and the communities across the country who are impacted by our continued reliance on this dirty and dangerous fuel, but we cannot stop here,” Jenny Harbine, managing attorney for Earthjustice’s Northern Rockies office, said in a statement.
“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,” she added.