Judge Hands Trump Another Setback, This Time on Coal Leases on Federal Land

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Donald Trump and his administration have lost in court about 40 times since they began reversing former President Barack Obama’s environmental policies, according to The New York Times.


A judge on Friday handed Trump yet another loss, this time over the administration’s efforts to lease coal on federal lands, which the Obama administration had halted via moratorium in 2016.

U.S. District Judge Brian Morris in Montana said former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s implementation of an executive order issued by Trump in March 2017 to renew coal leasing was illegal because Interior Department officials failed to conduct environmental reviews of the impact the policy shift would have.

Morris in his ruling did not reinstate the Obama-era moratorium, but is expected to revisit that issue in coming months.

The lawsuit was brought by several environmental groups and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe.

Under the Obama administration, then Interior Sally Jewell issued Secretarial Order 3338 in January 2016, which blocked new coal leases until an environmental impact assessment and other reviews were completed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to determine a fair return to the public for the sale of coal on federal land, the climate change impact from federal coal leases, and the social and environmental consequences of the program.

The BLM manages 306 active federal coal leases in 10 states, which account for about 7.4 billion tons of recoverable coal. Over 40% of coal produced in the U.S. comes from federal land, the judge noted. Most of that comes from the Powder River Basin shared by Montana and Wyoming.


In February, Interior Department officials announced they would sell coal leases on public lands in Utah, the Associated Press reported. A statement announcing that sale was titled, “The War on Coal is Over,” which also was a campaign promise Trump often repeated during his candidacy.

But the judge ruled that Zinke had violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires federal agencies to study the environmental consequences of their policy-making decisions. “The Zinke Order constituted a major federal action triggering NEPA review,” Morris wrote.


Jenny Harbine, an attorney for Earthjustice who argued the case, called the ruling “a victory for communities whose land, water, and way of life is threatened by new coal mining.” She added: “It’s time we put their health and safety ahead of coal industry interests.”

However, Morris noted that the “Court lacks the authority to compel Federal Defendants to prepare a PEIS [programmatic environment impact statement], or supplement to the PEIS, at this time. Plaintiffs’ remaining claims prove contingent upon Federal Defendants’ initiation of the NEPA process and subsequent conclusions.”


The next move is up to current Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt, a lawyer and former oil lobbyist. Earlier this week, the Times reported that the Interior Department’s inspector general already had opened ethics investigations into Bernhardt’s conduct, less than a week after he had been confirmed to his position by the Senate.

Per the Times:

Among the chief complaints have been allegations, revealed by three separate New York Times investigations, that Mr. Bernhardt used his position to advance a policy pushed by his former lobbying client; that he continued working as a lobbyist after filing legal paperwork declaring that he had ceased lobbying; and that he intervened to block the release of a scientific report showing the harmful effects of a chemical pesticide on certain endangered species.


In related news, a different judge delivered another blow in late March to Trump’s energy policies by declaring the president’s attempts to open up the Arctic Ocean and parts of the Northern Atlantic Ocean to oil and gas drilling. That ruling restored permanent protections put in place by the Obama administration covering 120 million acres of Arctic waters.

And on Friday, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals told the Environmental Protection Agency it had 90 days to decide whether it would ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos, which has been linked to brain damage, the Times reported. The Obama administration had recommended banning chlorpyrifos at farms across the country, particularly due to its harmful effects on farm workers and young children.


In one of his first official acts as the head of the EPA in 2017, Scott Pruitt rejected the conclusions of his agency’s own chemical safety experts and dismissed a petition to ban chlorpyrifos, the newspaper reported. Pruitt resigned due to several scandals last July. He went on to seek work consulting for one of the largest coal companies in the country.

Weekend Editor, Splinter