Earlier this week, Earthjustice attorney Jenny Harbine went to court to argue that the state of Montana was legally required to consider steps to minimize the consequences of burning more than a half-a-billion tons of coal before leasing it to St. Louis-based Arch Coal, Inc. Earthjustice is representing the Montana Environmental Information Center and the Sierra Club in a lawsuit asking the court to cancel the lease so that the state may study options for minimizing or avoiding the environmental consequences of this massive strip mine.
Earthjustice is representing the Montana Environmental Information Center and Sierra Club in challenging a massive new coal strip mine in southeastern Montana. The lawsuit alleges that the state's decision to lease 572 million tons of coal for mining, without first examining the potentially devastating environmental consequences of the mine, violated the state's constitutional and fiduciary obligation to prevent unreasonable environmental degradation.
Montana's Board of Land Commissioners voted on March 18, 2010 to lease the state's Otter Creek coal reserves to St. Louis-based Arch Coal, the nation's second largest coal producer. Including the adjacent private coal tracts, also leased by Arch Coal, the proposed Otter Creek mine will exploit a 1.3 billion ton coal reserve, making it one of the largest coal mines in North America. Almost all of the Otter Creek coal is destined for coal-fired power plants in the U.S. and abroad, where it will result in 2.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
The lawsuit argues that the state was required to conduct environmental review before issuing the lease to allow it to consider measures to avoid or minimize the mine’s contribution to global warming. Among other things, the lawsuit argues that the Land Board should have considered imposing lease conditions restricting the sale of Otter Creek coal only to facilities that capture and store their carbon dioxide and prohibiting export of the coal.
In January 2011, Montana District Court Judge Joe Hegel ruled that the state's decision to lease the coal without first evaluating the environmental impacts of that decision may implicate Montanan’s right to a clean and healthful environment, denying the government and Arch Coal’s motion to dismiss the case.
In February 2012, Judge Hegel issued a mixed ruling that puts off until late in the development of the tracts the Land Board’s examination of the potential impacts from this massive coal mining proposal and consideration of measures that could be imposed on the mining company in order to protect Montana’s water, air, and climate.