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Federal court shoots down coal leasing moratorium, but leasing won't resume without BLM approvals

Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association said the ruling was good news, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the Bureau of Land Management will begin approving lease applications.

Published: February 22, 2024 11:00pm

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Wednesday squashed an Obama-era moratorium on federal leasing of coal.

“This is a victory for American-mined energy and we are pleased with the court’s recognition of the need to dismiss this irreparably flawed ruling,” Rick Nolan, National Mining Association president and CEO, said in a statement.

In 2016, then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell issued a moratorium on new coal leases on federal land. When Ryan Zinke took over the department a year later, he rescinded Jewell’s moratorium, according to the 9th Circuit’s six-page ruling.

“I find that the public interest is not served by halting the Federal coal program for an extended time,” Zinke said in his rescinding order.

In April 2021, as explained in the 9th Circuit ruling, the current Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, revoked the Zinke order, but she didn’t reinstate the coal leasing moratorium.

Several anti-fossil fuel groups had filed a lawsuit in federal district court challenging Zinke’s order on the argument that a full environmental assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is required before the moratorium could be lifted. The states of California, New York, New Mexico and Washington also sued.

In 2022, Judge Brian Morris of the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana reinstated the moratorium. Morris ruled that the Department of the Interior under Zinke had failed to study the full environmental impacts of permitting more mining, which he said is required under the NEPA.

The States of Montana and Wyoming joined the National Mining Association in appealing the District of Montana’s ruling. Lawyers for the plaintiffs, according to Fox News, argued earlier this month that Haaland’s actions rendered the case moot and effectively killed the moratorium.

The three-judge panel issuing Wednesday’s ruling agreed.

“The Haaland Order definitively ‘revoked’ the Zinke Order,” the judges said.

Wyoming has been the leading producer of coal in the U.S. since 1986, and mined 40% of America’s coal in 2022. Virtually all the coal mined in Wyoming is thermal coal, which is used in electricity generation, unlike metallurgical coal (also called coking coal), which is used in industrial applications, such as steel production.

Jewell’s moratorium only impacted thermal coal, which took aim at one of Wyoming’s primary economic drivers.

Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, told Just The News that the court’s ruling was good for Wyoming.

“The court made the right decision when it found the moratorium to be unlawful. And we feel that it's just one more excuse that's been taken away from the administration for not allowing that coal to be leased,” Deti said.

However, the ruling doesn’t necessarily mean that the Bureau of Land Management will begin issuing new leases, he said. Under the Biden administration, the department, Deti said, has been sitting on lease applications.

In a Republican House Committee on Natural Resources in April, Rep. Harriett Hageman, R-Wyo., asked Haaland if the BLM was sitting on coal lease applications and how many applications had been filed with the Interior Department. Haaland replied that she didn’t know how many were filed but would provide that information after the meeting.

Hageman told Just The News that Haaland’s responsiveness to Congress in person and in writing has been “wholly insufficient and evasive.”

“Secretary Haaland has been a major, but not unexpected, disappointment. Her war on fossil fuels continues her career of enviro-activism,” Hageman said.

She said that the 9th Circuit’s ruling was good news, but it won’t end the Biden administration’s overall efforts to restrict fossil fuel production.

“While this ruling is great news for our ability to extract coal, we must be vigilant – Biden, much like his environmental role model that first attempted this moratorium, Barack Obama, will stop at nothing to end American energy independence,” Hageman said.

Last year, Hageman co-sponsored the Lower Energy Costs Act, which passed the House 225-204. The measure included provisions to expedite approvals of applications for federal coal leases. With the 9th Circuit ruling, Hageman said it was time for the Senate to pass the bill and the president to sign it.

“American coal is clean, safe, and affordable. It is needed now and will be for generations to come. This administration should stop relying on despots and dictators for energy, and immediately begin issuing leases here in the United States that have been illegally held up through the entirety of Biden’s time in office,” Hageman said.

The Department of the Interior declined to comment on this story.

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