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Lawsuit Challenges Trump Administration's Order to Open Public Lands to Coal Leasing

Leases Benefit Coal Company Executives at Expense of Taxpayers, Clean Air, Water


A coalition today is suing the Trump administration over an order opening tens of thousands of acres of public lands to the coal industry. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's order lifting a moratorium on federal coal leasing comes a day after President Trump's executive order rolling back protections for public health, climate, and the environment.

The pause in leasing was ordered last year under the Obama administration to allow time to reform the federal program to protect the climate and American taxpayers. In just the first stage of that review, completed this January, the Interior Department found that coal mining fouls the air, pollutes streams and destroys wildlife habitat on public land. More than one-tenth of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, the pollution driving climate change, come from federal coal.

In addition to studying these impacts, the Interior Department previously committed to evaluate options for improving returns to taxpayers before resuming leasing. Internal Interior Department and independent Government Accountability Office audits have recently concluded that the current leasing system shortchanges taxpayers while subsidizing coal mining. The Trump administration's decision to resume federal coal leasing will lock in these subsidies--in addition to harmful environmental impacts--before they are fully studied.

"The Trump administration has basically announced a fire sale to revive the coal industry," said Art Hayes, a southeastern Montana rancher who lives downstream from the Decker and Spring Creek mines, which both have pending lease applications that will move forward when the moratorium is lifted. "But in the process, they are leaving us ranchers that rely on clean water and a healthy climate in the dust. Putting business before people is just wrong."

Today's lawsuit is being filed by Earthjustice on behalf of a coalition of local, regional and national groups working to protect public lands, air and water quality and the health of the planet, including: Citizens for Clean Energy, Montana Environmental Information Center, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, WildEarth Guardians and Defenders of Wildlife. The Northern Cheyenne Tribe is also suing to challenge the decision.

"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 Earthjustice attorney Jenny Harbine, who is leading the effort to challenge the President's actions. "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."

"Trump and Zinke just took their war against our climate to a terrifying new level. We already have enough coal under lease to cook our planet," said Michael Saul of the Center for Biological Diversity. "This order virtually gives away our beautiful public lands to the coal industry even as global warming drives up drought and wildfires across the West. To give our kids a shot at a livable climate, we've got to stop this bizarre plan."

"By moving to re-open coal leasing on public lands at bargain basement prices, the Trump administration is giving a straight-up handout to its cronies in the coal industry," said Richard Liebert, chairman of Montana-based Citizens for Clean Energy, and a cattle rancher and retired Army Lt. Colonel. "Eliminating the coal leasing pause will open the floodgates to more contracts that line the pockets of campaign contributors in the coal industry while ripping off the taxpayers who own the coal."

"This reckless action is an ill-advised attempt to prop up our dirtiest form of energy. Lifting the coal moratorium opens the floodgates of potential harm to wildlife from pollution and habitat destruction," said Mark Salvo, Vice President of Landscape Conservation at Defenders of Wildlife. "The president's decision short-sells our natural heritage, threatens our lands, water, wildlife and climate and puts our children's future at risk."

"This is nothing short of a bail-out for a dying coal industry," said Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Program Director for WildEarth Guardians. "This isn't making America great again, it's about forcing the American public to make coal executives rich again by selling off our public lands; this is outrageous."

When the moratorium was put in place, the Interior Department estimated then-current federal leases produced enough coal to supply the country's needs for 20 years. Further, Goldman Sachs analysts last year issued a report concluding that the "decline in long-term demand [for coal] appears to be irreversible."

Coal mined from public lands contributes more than 40 percent of the United States' coal and approximately 10 percent of its greenhouse gas pollution. Coal mining and combustion also impose heavy air-quality and public-health costs through emissions of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and mercury. Scientists have called on the United States to stop new coal leasing to help prevent the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.

"Trump has upended a public process intended to stop taxpayer losses on coal mined from our public lands," said Bill Corcoran, Western Regional Campaign Director for Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. "Trump is embracing a broken system that sells America's public lands for pennies on the dollar to coal companies that have reaped fat profits ruining our land and water. 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."

Earthjustice is a non-profit public interest law firm dedicated to protecting the magnificent places, natural resources, and wildlife of this earth, and to defending the right of all people to a healthy environment. We bring about far-reaching change by enforcing and strengthening environmental laws on behalf of hundreds of organizations, coalitions and communities.