On April 19, a federal judge ruled that the Department of the Interior (DOI) acted unlawfully when it revoked a moratorium on new coal mining leases on public lands. In 2017, President Donald Trump had ordered then-DOI Secretary Ryan Zinke to withdraw the moratorium put in place in 2016 by then-DOI Secretary Sally Jewell in 2016 under former President Barack Obama’s administration. The moratorium was to be effective until the Bureau of Land Management prepared a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS).
Judge Brian Morris of the U.S. District Court of the District of Montana said the plaintiffs in the case demonstrated “they possess standing to challenge the Zinke order” and that it constituted a major federal action that would have triggered a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review.
The defendants argued a NEPA review wasn’t necessary because no major federal action occurred or final agency action. It was “merely an agency policy.”
The judge continued that the Zinke order meets requirements for final agency action under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).
Although the judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, which included numerous environmental groups and the states of California, Washington and New Mexico, it did not revoke the lift. He directed both parties to come together and reach an agreement.
“The court directs the parties to submit a joint proposal no later than 30 days from today’s date if the parties reach an agreement regarding remedies,” the judge said in his statement.
If an agreement can’t be made, the court directed both parties to prepare additional briefing and proposed remedies to address the current status of coal leasing, including the leases cited by plaintiffs in their complaint that had been affected by the moratorium. This would need to be submitted in 60 days or less.
The judge’s decision will follow.
National Mining Associtaion President Hal Quinn said the decision was “irreconcilable with a recent, unanimous decision” by the D.C. Circuit Court, which dismissed claims that the DOI had an obligation to update its prior environmental impact statement for federal coal leasing.
“Following the court’s reasoning, the real action violating NEPA was former Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell’s order halting federal coal leasing with the Interior Department leaping first and promising to look later at the consequences of such an unprecedented action,” Quinn said. “Secretary Zinke’s directive, on the other hand, simply ceased a voluntary and wholly unnecessary review and resumed the faithful implementation of the Federal Coal Leasing Act under which decisions to lease coal are already subject to multiple NEPA reviews before leasing and before mining commences.”