Anti-coal campaigners in the United States scored a significant but still partial victory earlier this month, when an appeals court ordered a climate impact analysis for four massive coal leases the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had approved at mines owned by Arch Coal and Peabody Energy.
Under the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the judges ruled, VLM “can’t assume the harmful effects away by claiming that dirty fuels left untouched in one location would automatically bubble up, greenhouse gas emissions and all, somewhere else,” InsideClimate News reports. That was BLM’s basic logic “when it approved the new leases in the Powder River Basin that stretches across Wyoming and Montana, expanding projects that hold some two billion tons of coal, big enough to supply at least a fifth of the nation’s needs.”
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The court ruled the agency’s previous analysis was “irrational” and ordered a redo. But it didn’t overturn a lower court ruling upholding the analysis, a move that would have stopped mining operations on the spot. “Nor, in sending the case back for further review, did it instruct the lower court how to proceed, beyond telling it not ‘to rely on an economic assumption which contradicted basic economic principles,’” ICN notes.
Still, “this is a major win for climate progress, for our public lands, and for our clean energy future,” said WildEarth Guardians Climate and Energy Program Director Jeremy Nichols. “It also stands as a major reality check [to Donald Trump] and his attempts to use public lands and coal to prop up the dying coal industry at the expense of our climate.”
Vox describes the decision as something of a surprise, coming from a conservative appeals court whose jurisdiction covers Colorado, Kansas, Utah, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Wyoming. “The 10th Circuit is the highest court to rule on climate change accounting so far, and its opinion undercuts President Donald Trump’s efforts to resuscitate the dying US coal industry,” the online news outlet notes.
“It’s reaffirming what a lot of people already knew: Government has to take a hard look at what their environmental impacts are,” said University of Wyoming law professor Sam Kalen. “Cases like this are sending a signal that regardless of what the administration wants to do, the law says you have to take a look at these issues.”
ICN and Vox both note that the court took a dim view of BLM’s “perfect substitution” argument, which suggested that coal not mined in the Powder River Basin would just come from somewhere else, with equal climate impact.
“This long logical leap presumes that either the reduced supply will have no impact on price, or that any increase in price will not make other forms of energy more attractive and decrease coal’s share of the energy mix, even slightly,” wrote Judge Mary Beck Briscoe.
“That is to say,” Vox explains, “if millions of tons of cheap Powder River Basin coal are no longer on the U.S. market, it’s likely that power producers will switch to cleaner alternatives rather than dig up more expensive coal in other parts of the country.”
Citing WildEarth Guardians, Vox says the four leases would produce 3.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to emissions from 1,000 coal-fired power plants. Still, reporter Umair Irfan says the ruling came as a pleasant surprise to environmental groups fighting the case.
“I think it is a good surprise,” said Jayni Hein, policy director at New York University’s Institute for Policy Integrity. “We are more used to seeing decisions like this from the Ninth Circuit, which has been a leader on requiring accounting for climate change. It’s a sign that courts are recognizing the importance of this.”