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Appeals Court Ends Obama-Era Moratorium on Federal Coal Leasing

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Conservation groups have urged the Biden administration to fulfill its election promise to protect humans from the adverse effects of coal on the climate.

A federal appeals panel has invalidated a moratorium on new coal mine leases on public lands.

The ruling on Feb. 21 by a three-judge panel from U.S. Court of Appeals 9th Circuit overturns Judge Brian Morris’s decision from the U.S. District of Montana in August 2022, which reinstated a moratorium from the 2016 Obama administration.

The Department of the Interior (DOI) initially issued a first-of-its-kind moratorium on all new coal leases on federal land in 2016 under Secretary Sally Jewell. A year later, Secretary Ryan Zinke rescinded the moratorium that succeeded Ms. Jewell’s tenure.

Current DOI Secretary Deb Haaland then revoked Mr. Zinke’s order shortly after taking office in 2021. But according to the appeals court ruling, when Secretary Haaland rescinded Mr. Zinke’s order, it didn’t reinstate the original 2016 moratorium on coal leasing.

Environmental groups continued litigating Mr. Zinke’s order ending the moratorium, which led to the 2022 ruling. At the time, the DOI said it wanted to complete a thorough environmental analysis of the effects of burning coal from public lands before making a decision to formally reinstate the moratorium.

“The district court reasoned that the Haaland Order’s failure to reinstate the coal leasing moratorium from the Jewell Order meant that the Zinke Order still remains in partial effect. That is incorrect,” the appeals court ruling said (pdf).

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“The Haaland Order definitively revoked’ the Zinke Order. While appellees may be dissatisfied with the government’s position that the Haaland Order did not revive the Jewell Order’s moratorium, this does not provide a basis for concluding that a challenge to the defunct Zinke Order is live.”

The National Mining Association (NMA), along with the States of Montana and Wyoming, led the successful appeal, and all applauded the judge’s decision. NMA President and CEO Rich Nolan stated in a media release that it was a victory for American energy because energy projects can now move forward.

“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,” he said.

“With this ruling, important projects can once again advance and support the production of affordable, reliable power to the grid, while creating jobs and economic development across the country,” Mr. Nolan added.

Environmental Groups Dismayed at Ruling

The Northern Cheyenne Tribe and conservation groups behind the lawsuit, which resulted in the 2022 ruling, have called on the Biden administration to fulfill its election promise to protect Americans from predictions of unfavorable climate.

Northern Cheyenne Tribal Administrator William Walksalong said in a statement that his tribe was “disappointed” by the ruling but they will continue the fight “to protect our Reservation and its air and waters.”

“[W]e need the Biden administration to step up and live up to its promises to protect our climate, conduct a long overdue review of the federal coal leasing program, and make thoughtful plans for the future of public lands,” Mr. Walksalong said.

At the same time, Michael Saul, Rockies, and Plains program director at Defenders of Wildlife said the decision will only serve to speed up the extinction of wildlife, and that coal mining has no place in the country.

“Allowing coal-leasing on federal lands is tantamount to throwing fuel on the fire of global wildlife extinction,” he said. “New coal leasing not only has no place in 2024, it should have no place in our future.”

Nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice represented the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Citizens for Clean Energy, Montana Environmental Information Center, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, WildEarth Guardians, and Defenders of Wildlife in the court case.

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