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Why it Matters
The Department of the Interior (DOI) manages 700 million acres of subsurface mineral rights on federal lands. DOI halted coal leasing in 2016 to review how to address the health and environmental impacts of the coal leasing program and ensure taxpayers get a fair return for their public resources.
On January 15, 2016, the Obama Department of the Interior (“DOI”) halted new coal leasing on public lands. On March 29, 2017, the Trump DOI resumed leasing. Environmental groups, tribes, and states challenged the move, and the District Court of Montana sent DOI back to conduct more environmental analysis before lifting the moratorium. DOI completed that analysis, finding no significant impact, on February 26, 2020. Challengers have continued with updated suits, which are still in the District of Montana.
Jan. 15, 2016 Interior Secretary Jewell issues an order placing a moratorium on new coal leasing on public lands and launching a comprehensive review to evaluate the environmental and social effects of the program and determine whether potential reforms should be made to the program. The moratorium does not pause all coal leasing- there are exemptions and exclusions, including lease modifications under 160 acres, lease exchanges, leases for metallurgical coal, and others. The review, a programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), was due to be completed by March 2019.
March 29, 2017 Interior Secretary Zinke lifts the coal leasing moratorium in Order 3348. On the same day, a coalition of environmental groups and the Northern Cheyenne tribe sue DOI over the lifting of the moratorium, alleging it violates the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Mineral Leasing Act (MLA), the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). Citizens for Clean Energy et al v. DOI, No. 4:17-cv-00030-BMM (D. Mont).
May 9, 2017 New York, California, New Mexico, and Washington sue DOI for lifting the moratorium, saying the move will exacerbate climate change. State of California et al v. DOI. No. 4:17-cv-00042-BMM (D. Mont.). The case is later consolidated with the Citizens for Clean Energy case.
April 19, 2019 The US District Court for Montana rules that DOI’s issuance of the order to lift the moratorium constituted a major Federal action that triggers compliance with NEPA. As a result, DOI needs to comply with NEPA, but the court notes that it lacks the authority to compel DOI to prepare the programmatic EIS envisioned in the Jewell order in 2016. Citizens for Clean Energy v. DOI, No. 4:17-cv-00030-BMM (D. Mont.).
May 22, 2019 The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), along with DOI and the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, publish a draft Environmental Assessment (EA) of lifting the moratorium on new coal leases. BLM evaluates the potential environmental effects of the action and alternatives in the draft EA. It considers two alternatives: resuming normal leasing in March 2017 or March 2019. BLM assumes that the moratorium would have been lifted in March 2019, when the programmatic EIS was complete, if it had not been lifted sooner in March 2017. Comparing these two alternatives, the only difference in the GHG emissions and environmental impacts is the timing. BLM is providing a 15-day comment period on this draft EA, ending on June 6, 2019. Comments may be submitted here. BLM will consider those comments, respond to them publicly, and determine whether the impacts require preparation of an EIS.
July 31, 2019 The US District Court for Montana orders a delay in the Citizens for Clean Energy litigation. This order temporarily delays the next phase of the case until after the court-ordered NEPA review is complete. Citizens for Clean Energy v. DOI, No. 4:17-cv-00030-BMM (D. Mont.).
Feb. 26, 2020 BLM publishes a final Environmental Assessment and Finding of No Significant Impact that support resuming federal coal leasing. BLM was mandated to conduct this NEPA review by the US District Court for Montana in Citizens for Clean Energy v. DOI, No. 4:17-cv-00030-BMM (D. Mont.).
March 3, 2020 A review of coal leasing data reveals that companies have not rushed to mine coal on federal lands since the leasing moratorium was lifted in March 2017. Over the last three years, BLM has sold nearly 83 million tons — half of which had been exempt from the Obama-era ban — and received new applications for 80 million tons. During the same time, companies withdrew applications for 930 million tons. Now, less than 1.8 billion tons is up for lease and many applications are on hold as demand for coal has fallen.
May 22, 2020 Chief Judge Morris in the US District Court for Montana rules that the case be closed since BLM has produced a final environmental assessment and finding of no significant impact for its decision to resume federal coal leasing. The judge noted that another case can be filed to challenge the sufficiency of the environmental review and the finding of no significant impact. Citizens for Clean Energy v. DOI, No. 4:17-cv-00030-BMM (D. Mont.).
July 20, 2020 New York, California, New Mexico, and Washington file a supplemental complaint renewing their lawsuit from May 2017 with new claims that BLM arbitrarily limited the scope of its analysis in its Feb. 2020 Environmental Assessment in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act and Administrative Procedure Act. The complaint also alleges continued violations of the Federal Land Policy Management Act, and the Mineral Leasing Act. State of California v. DOI, No. 4:17-cv-00042-BMM (D. Mont.).
July 20, 2020 The Northern Cheyenne Tribe and multiple environmental groups file a supplemental complaint similar to the one filed by the states, renewing their previous lawsuit as well. Citizens for Clean Energy v. DOI, No. 4:17-cv-00030-BMM (D. Mont.).