The Biden Administration Must Reinstate the Coal Leasing Moratorium

The Northern Cheyenne Tribe is part of a lawsuit challenging the Biden administration’s defense of continued coal leasing on public lands.

North Antelope Mine in Wyoming's Powder River Basin.
North Antelope Mine in Wyoming's Powder River Basin. (Photo courtesy of Ecoflight)

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It is time for the Biden administration to support environmental justice for the Northern Cheyenne people on coal. When President Biden was elected and Debra Haaland was chosen as Interior Secretary, many had hoped to turn a page on the most harmful environmental decisions from the Trump era, including its decision to restart coal leasing on public lands, including lands surrounding the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. In an affront to our people, the Biden administration has refused to reverse Trump’s coal policy that puts our communities, waters, land, and air at risk. As Tribal Administrator, I see each day the impacts of this failure to act.

At the core of the Northern Cheyenne worldview is the imperative to respect what Maheo, our Creator, allowed us to take care of. We care for the Earth that provides for us. In the Northern Cheyenne religion and culture, land is sacred, and people should not open up the earth. We believe that water is life itself. For centuries, the Northern Cheyenne people have sacrificed their lives and placed their children and elders in harm’s way to preserve and live on the land that contains the bones of our loved ones. Our ancestral homelands and our water are sacred to us, and we have never developed the coal underlying the reservation or allowed others to do so.

Coal mining has harmed our community and others around the world. We are impacted by air pollution from mining activities near the Reservation and runoff that impairs our water quality. Mining also destroys habitat for sensitive species, including burrowing owls, prairie dogs, prairie chicken, and sage grouse. Mining within our ancestral homelands also destroys important cultural sites, including those used for Cheyenne ceremonies. We know that coal mining does long-term harm to our environment and Mother Earth, yet the current administration has inexcusably allowed it to continue. This unnecessary coal mining endangers public health, now and into the future.

The Northern Cheyenne Tribe is part of a lawsuit challenging the Biden administration’s defense of continued coal leasing on public lands. During the Trump years, Secretary Zinke lifted the Obama-era moratorium barring companies from future leasing of most federal lands for coal exploration or extraction. Instead of reinstating that common-sense moratorium and completing an adequate environmental review and meaningful consultation with the Northern Cheyenne and other affected tribes, the Biden administration has doubled down on the Trump-era policy to continue coal leasing.  

Our Tribe has rejected lucrative economic development and sacrificed endlessly to protect our land and maintain our way of life because these places are sacred to us. It is extremely disappointing that the Biden administration allows coal leasing to continue, even as it calls for a transition to clean, renewable energy. In 2021, coal consumption rose 14% in this country. We are hampering any progress we make on clean energy by continuing to prop up this industry that has exploited our lands and resources. 

As the Northern Cheyenne Tribe works hard to develop renewable energy on our reservation, we need the Biden administration to do its part. 

Coal mining and production have not led to economic prosperity for our people, despite promises that were made when coal mines and coal-fired power plants were under development on nearby lands. With the Rosebud mine to the north and the Decker and Spring Creek mines to the south, we were told that there would be employment and contracting opportunities, but those never fully materialized.  

We would like to see the administration turn its attention away from continued coal leasing and toward a clean energy future. Not only would this protect our ancestral lands, our air, and our water, it could launch meaningful employment opportunities for our people. Tribal members could benefit from working on remediation efforts and renewable energy projects. Wind, solar, and storage projects could both help our community with jobs, lead to energy independence, and contribute to a cleaner environment.  

What we don’t need to see is the Biden administration continuing the destructive legacy of coal mining. Moving away from coal is what’s best for both our surrounding communities and the climate. It is imperative that any transition toward clean energy ensure that the workers in our mines — including the Northern Cheyenne members who have found employment there — have the first shot at new remediation and renewable energy positions.  

For far too long, we have suffered at the hands of industry’s exploitation of our lands. We have sacrificed life and limb to defend our right to a clean and healthy environment. All we ask is for sensible policies that respect the history of our ancestors and honor Mother Earth. President Biden and Secretary Haaland know better than to further the harmful impacts of coal on our people. It is time they reinstate the coal leasing moratorium and accurately assess those impacts once and for all.   

This article was originally published as an op-ed by the Billings Gazette. It has been shared with permission.

William Walksalong was the Tribal Administrator for the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, located in present-day southeastern Montana, one of many positions of service and leadership he held over several decades. He died in 2024. Read a remembrance.

Established in 1993, Earthjustice's Northern Rockies Office, located in Bozeman, Mont., protects the region's irreplaceable natural resources by safeguarding sensitive wildlife species and their habitats and challenging harmful coal and industrial gas developments.