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The Tongue River is downstream from the Decker Mine. (Photo: Colin Ruggiero via Earthjustice)

Coalition Takes Trump's Order to Pillage Public Lands for Coal to Court

"This isn't putting Americans first, this is putting corporate polluters first."

Andrea Germanos

A day after President Donald Trump "took a wrecking ball to U.S. action on climate change" with an executive order that included lifting his predecessor's pause on new federal coal leases, a coalition of groups has filed a legal challenge to stop the widespread damage the rescission would bring about.

Opening public lands to coal leasing, say the groups, which include Citizens for Clean Energy, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, and Defenders of Wildlife, serves only to fatten the coffers of coal executives, rip off taxpayers, befoul the air and water, threaten wildlife, and fuel climate change.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday by Earthjustice.

The pause, which the Obama administration put in place in 2016, was to conduct a review of the program to ensure that it offers "a fair return to taxpayers and reflect its impacts on the environment."

As ThinkProgress wrote Tuesday, among other things, "[l]ifting the moratorium is expected to cost taxpayers by preventing them from getting fair market value for publicly owned coal for the foreseeable future." A recent analysis (pdf) by Ecoshift Consulting also showed that burning the unleased federal coal would emit as much as 212 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

"No one voted to pollute our public lands, air, or drinking water in the last election, yet the Trump administration is doing the bidding of powerful polluters as nearly its first order of business," said attorney Jenny Harbine of Earthjustice. "Our legal system remains an important backstop against the abuses of power we've witnessed over the course of the past two months. That's why we're going to court to defend our public lands, clean air and water, and a healthy climate for all."

Another issue to be pointed out, the groups say, is the fact that the coal industry is dying. According to Bill Corcoran, western regional campaign director for Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, "Rather than protecting American-owned lands for public use and enjoyment, Trump is giving them away to prop up this now failing industry. Today's irrational action does nothing to reverse the coal industry's market-driven decline. This isn't putting Americans first, this is putting corporate polluters first."

A backgrounder on the case from Earthjustice offers a look at the impacts lifting the moratorium would have on Montana rancher Art Hayes.

His ranch, owned in his family since 1884, relies on irrigation from the Tongue River reservoir. But that waterway is downstream of the Decker Mine, which put an expansion on hold when the Obama-era moratorium was put in place. The new development means his water source is once again under threat.

"We used to have the June flood, now we have the May flood. Our summers are getting hotter, and forest fires are getting bigger and more intense," Hayes said. As for climate change, "I do believe that these big coal plants are adding lots to it."

Trump's action "is nothing short of a bailout for a dying coal industry," said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director at WildEarth Guardians. "This isn't making America great again," he continued, referencing Trump's campaign slogan. Rather, "it's about forcing the American public to make coal executives rich again by selling off our public lands; this is outrageous."

Added Michael Saul of the Center for Biological Diversity: "To give our kids a shot at a livable climate, we've got to stop this bizarre plan."

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