Digging for coal on public land? Not on our watch

This week, Trump signed executive orders that, among other things, rescinded a moratorium on new coal permits on public land. Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke quickly followed with an order rolling back the moratorium.

The Obama administrations had placed the moratorium on permits because the fees collected hadn’t been adjusted in decades, and the American taxpayers were not getting good value for their money. Zinke ostensibly gives a nod to this concern by chartering a committee to look into the fees but sees no reason not to give out permits in the meantime.

A lawsuit was immediately filed by a coalition of environmental and citizen groups and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. The groups are Earth Justice, Sierra Club, Citizens for Clean Energy, Montana Environmental Information Center, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and Wildlife Guardians.

According to the Northern Cheyenne Tribe’s President, L. Jace Killsback:

It is alarming and unacceptable for the United States, which has a solemn obligation as the Northern Cheyenne’s trustee, to sign up for many decades of harmful coal mining near and around our homeland without first consulting with our Nation or evaluating the impacts to our Reservation and our residents.

The complaint states:

This case challenges a decision by the Secretary of the Interior (“Secretary”) to repeal a year-old moratorium on federal coal leasing by the Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) and abandon programmatic environmental review of the federal coal leasing program. The prior presidential administration found this moratorium essential to ensure that such leasing is conducted, if at all, in a manner consistent with BLM’s environmental obligations and mandate to secure a fair economic return to U.S. taxpayers from publicly owned coal. In repealing the moratorium, Defendants Secretary of the Interior, Department of the Interior, and BLM (collectively, “Defendants”) opened the door to new coal leasing and its attendant consequences without first performing an environmental review evaluating the program’s significant environmental, health, and economic impacts—including impacts from climate disruption caused by the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, and socioeconomic and environmental impacts to local communities. In doing so, Defendants violated the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 4321-4370h.

The organizations do have a strong legal challenge, as Zinke’s action does violate long-established NEPA procedures.

What is NEPA? From NEPA.gov:

President Nixon signed NEPA into law on January 1, 1970. NEPA set forth a bold new vision for America. Acknowledging the decades of environmental neglect that had significantly degraded the nation’s landscape and damaged the human environment, the law was established to foster and promote the general welfare, to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans. NEPA was the first major environmental law in the United States and is often called the “Magna Carta” of Federal environmental laws. NEPA requires Federal Agencies to assess the environmental effects of their proposed actions prior to making decisions. To implement NEPA’s policies, Congress prescribed a procedure, commonly referred to as “the NEPA process” or “the environmental impact assessment process.”

The ultimate goal of the NEPA process is to foster excellent action that protects, restores, and enhances our environment. This is achieved through the utilization of environmental assessments (EAs) and environmental impact statements (EISs), which provide public officials with relevant information and allow a “hard look” at the potential environmental consequences of each proposed project.

NEPA will figure prominently in most environmental lawsuits against Trump’s administration.

Earth Justice, Center for Biological Diversity, and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe are providing the legal expertise and resources for this lawsuit.

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