Court Ends Moratorium on New Coal Leases

Ruling concerning federal land is a loss for environmental groups
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 21, 2024 6:05 PM CST
Environmental Groups Lose on Coal Lease Moratorium
A mechanized shovel loads a haul truck that can carry up to 250 tons of coal at the Spring Creek coal min in 2013, near Decker, Montana.   (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

A federal appeals court on Wednesday struck down a moratorium on coal leasing from federal lands in a move that could open the door to future coal sales from vast, publicly owned reserves of the fuel that's a major source of climate-changing greenhouse gases. The ruling from a three-judge panel of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals is a setback for environmentalists and Democratic lawmakers who worked for years to curtail the federal coal leasing program, the AP reports. Nevertheless, it's uncertain how much demand there will be from the mining industry for new leases.

Coal production from federal lands dropped sharply over the past decade after many electric utilities switched to less polluting sources of power generation such as natural gas and renewables. More than 260 million tons of coal, about half of the nation's total, was mined by private companies from leases on federal land in 2022. That compares to more than 400 million tons of coal mined from federal lands in 2014. Most of the mining occurs in Western states including Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado. The leasing moratorium—originally enacted in 2016 under former President Barack Obama—didn't halt mining. Rather, it prohibited federal lease sales that are often crucial for companies seeking to expand their operations.

The moratorium was rescinded under former President Donald Trump, then revived by a federal district judge in Montana, who in 2022 ordered government officials to conduct a new environmental review before holding coal sales on federal lands. That came in a lawsuit filed by environmental groups and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, which has fought coal mining near its Montana reservation. But Wednesday's ruling said the matter was moot when the 2022 order was issued, because Interior Department officials under President Biden had revoked Trump's effort to end the moratorium. The panel of judges noted that a "de facto moratorium" appears to be in place, since lease sales have diminished. The National Mining Association hailed the ruling as "a victory for American-mined energy," while an Earthjustice attorney called for the Biden administration to take immediate steps to end new leasing.

(More coal mining stories.)

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