The U.S. coal leasing program is an outdated relic of the past that must be phased out immediately
It is critically important that the United States keep coal in the ground to meet its climate targets. According to a 2021 study, 90% of coal reserves worldwide must remain unextracted by 2050 to meet a 1.5°C climate target. If we continue to burn the world’s most polluting fossil fuel, we are sealing our own fate. Yet, the Biden administration continues to prop the industry up – jeopardizing impacted communities and the health of the planet.
While the administration appears to be in denial about its coal problem, a couple recent court victories will help spur the transition toward a cleaner energy future.
In 2016, President Obama established a moratorium on new coal leasing on federal lands until the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) completed a sufficient environmental analysis of its impacts – an important step toward reining in the harm from the government’s coal program. When President Trump took office, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke quickly overturned that moratorium. Representing the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and conservation groups, Earthjustice challenged that order. Inexplicably, following the 2020 presidential election, the Biden administration refused to reverse the Trump administration’s policy to re-impose the moratorium and continued to process applications for new coal leases. Fortunately, a federal judge recently ruled that the decision to end the moratorium illegally failed to account for the climate and other harmful impacts of coal leasing. The court re-imposed the moratorium until a comprehensive analysis of federal coal leasing is completed.
Commenting on the victory, President Serena Wetherelt of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe said, “We are thrilled that the court is requiring what we have always asked for: serious consideration of the impacts of the federal coal leasing program on the Tribe and our way of life. We hope that President Biden and Secretary Haaland fulfill their trust obligation to take a hard look at the overall energy program on federal lands and really consider how to make it best serve the Tribe, taxpayers, and the climate.” This ruling presents an opportunity to finally turn the page on coal leasing, along with its impacts to the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and Indigenous communities nationwide.
The Biden administration also chose to stand alongside the coal industry by refusing to revoke two Trump-era resource management plans for the Powder River Basin – the largest coal-producing region in the country. The plans failed to comply with a court order to account for the impacts from burning publicly owned coal, including on public health, and to consider alternatives that limit coal leasing in the region. A court struck down the plans in August, ordering BLM to redo its analysis.
These recent rulings make it clear that the Biden administration can no longer ignore the devastating downstream consequences of its coal-leasing program. Coal harms communities throughout its production cycle – from mining accidents, to habitat destruction, to water pollution, to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions as it is burned, to the toxic coal ash left over that contaminates water. Disproportionately, coal hurts people of color and low-income communities across the country.
While these two court decisions are huge wins against new coal leasing, much work remains to stop harm from ongoing mining. A massive amount of coal has already been leased on our public lands. As of 2021, BLM administered 299 federal coal leases across approximately 458,600 acres. Just as the courts ordered the administration to consider harm from new leases, it must account for the tremendous harm of mining existing leases. It can do so by ensuring that industry internalizes the high environmental and social costs of continued mining. If the industry cannot pay those costs, the public should not be forced to subsidize it with their health and well-being. It is time for companies to pay for the true costs of their mining operations and reclamation or shut down.
For too long, the federal government has ignored the harm of burning fossil fuels on both our health and the environment. The Biden administration took office promising to be a climate champion, and while it has made significant strides in some areas, it has not done nearly enough to end our reliance on coal. The U.S. coal leasing program is an outdated relic of the past that must be phased out immediately. While recent court victories get us closer to ending new coal leasing on federal lands, the Biden administration must have the courage to phase out existing leases to meet our country’s climate targets.
As the managing attorney of the Northern Rockies regional office in Bozeman, Montana, Jenny leads advocacy to protect the region’s wild landscapes and wildlife, prevent and remedy the harmful impacts of fossil fuel development, and promote a transition to clean renewable energy.
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.