By Kenny Stancil
January 16, 2022 - "Coal is killing our climate, yet the Biden administration is defending it" in federal court, one environmental advocate lamented.
While the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) says that it is assessing its coal leasing program, the agency responsible for managing public lands has not taken steps to prevent new leases from being sold before a comprehensive environmental review is completed.
A truck loaded with coal is viewed at the Eagle Butte Coal Mine, which is operated by Alpha Coal, on May 8, 2017 in Gillette, Wyoming.
Photo: Matt McClain/Washington Post via Getty Images
Instead, the Biden administration continued to process applications for new coal leases throughout 2021, helping spark a 14% increase in coal consumption nationwide, which climate scientists say contributed to the ongoing, life-threatening surge in greenhouse gas emissions and global temperatures.
Although the tribal and conservation organizations suing the DOI stress that nothing meaningful has been done to mitigate air, water, and climate damages caused by the federal coal leasing program, the U.S. Department of Justice asked a federal court not to rule on alleged legal violations in a filing submitted on Thursday.
"The Biden administration cannot have it both ways on coal," Jenny Harbine, managing attorney for Earthjustice's Northern Rockies office, said Friday in a statement. "While they seem to recognize that it is indefensible to continue to allow coal leasing on public lands, they are also refusing to do the bare minimum by reinstating the Obama-era coal leasing moratorium."
As the coal industry and the states of Montana and Wyoming defend former President Donald Trump's coal policy in court, the Biden administration is helping to prolong it through inaction, Indigenous rights and environmental advocates argue.
Biden, who vowed on the campaign trail that he would halt fossil fuel extraction on public lands, "came into office promising to be a climate champion," said Harbine. "But six years after [former] President [Barack] Obama paused our nation's coal leasing we are now taking steps in the wrong direction."
After the DOI reversed the Obama-era moratorium in 2017, Earthjustice and a coalition of conservation groups, states, and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe won a legal challenge to that policy in 2019.
The court ordered the DOI's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to conduct an environmental review, under the National Environmental Policy Act, before ending the coal leasing moratorium, the coalition explained.
However, the groups added:
The Trump-era BLM's analysis refused to consider the full impact of that choice, instead analyzing only the impact of allowing six coal leases to move forward, including the Alton coal mine expansion in Utah, which a federal judge in Utah determined was approved illegally by the Trump administration. The BLM's truncated environmental analysis applies to only six federal coal leases, so the groups went back to court in 2020 to challenge it.
Last year, the Biden administration chose to maintain the Trump-era policy ending the coal leasing moratorium. In May of 2021, tribal and environmental groups filed an opening brief challenging the Biden administration's decision to defend continued coal leasing on public lands.
In a filing just last week, the Biden administration's BLM defended two Trump-era resource management plans that failed to comply with a court order to account for impacts from burning publicly-owned coal, including on public health, and to consider alternatives that limit coal leasing in the Powder River Basin—the largest coal-producing region in the country.
Michael Saul, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said that "it's appalling that the Biden administration is refusing to confront Trump's reckless policy of federal coal leasing despite mounting, undeniable evidence of catastrophic climate change and rising fossil fuel emissions."
According to Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club's Lands Protection Program, "The Biden administration is again missing an easy opportunity to back up its climate rhetoric by limiting the federal coal leasing program, which accounts for 11% of all U.S. climate pollution."
While Biden has promised that the U.S. government will take the climate crisis seriously, Jeremy Nichols, director of WildEarth Guardian's Climate and Energy Program, said that "it seems as if he has no intention of following through with this promise."
"Coal is killing our climate, yet the Biden administration is defending it," Nichols added.
Saul emphasized that the president's inaction "will worsen the climate emergency and the extinction crisis and lessen the chance that we'll leave a livable planet to future generations."
"How can Biden explain this to his grandchildren?" he asked.