Federal Judge Rules Massive Montana Coal Mine Expansion Illegal


Court finds OSM failed to consider expansion impacts on water resources, the Yellowstone River, and the climate


Shiloh Hernandez, Earthjustice, (406) 586-9899, shernandez@earthjustice.org

Melissa Hornbein, Western Environmental Law Center, (406) 471-3173, hornbein@westernlaw.org

Derf Johnson, Montana Environmental Information Center, (406) 443-2520, djohnson@meic.org

Noah Rott, Sierra Club, (406) 214-1990, noah.rott@sierraclub.org

Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians, (303) 437-7663, jnichols@wildearthguardians.org 

Jeff Smith, 350 Montana, (406) 880-8320, yswolfhowl@gmail.com 

Late Friday, Billings Federal District Court Judge Susan Watters ruled that a massive expansion of the Rosebud coal strip-mine was approved illegally. The expansion was approved in June 2019 by the federal Office of Surface Mining (OSM) and allowed Western Rosebud Mining, LLC (WRM) to strip-mine a new area, known as Area F.

The court ruled that OSM failed to consider the impacts from this massive expansion on water resources, the Yellowstone River, and the climate. The expansion would allow the strip mining of an additional 6,500 acres containing about 70 million tons of coal, which would be burned almost exclusively at the Colstrip power plant and release over 100 million tons of greenhouse gases. Burning the coal at the Colstrip Power Plant requires diverting 25,000 to 50,000 acre feet of water from the Yellowstone River each year.

“OSM has a responsibility to tell the public the truth about the harm from mining and burning coal. It continually fails to do its job despite the clear language in the law,” said Shiloh Hernandez, senior attorney with Earthjustice. “Under a clear-eyed, honest analysis, continued coal development is indefensible. OSM now has an opportunity and an obligation to lay out and analyze a transition at Colstrip that is just for the community and the climate.”

The court agreed with conservation groups who pointed out OSM focused on the economic benefits of the mine, while ignoring the environmental costs. OSM’s attempt to use wordplay to avoid disclosing the overwhelming costs of the mine expansion did not negate its obligation to provide an even-handed analysis of both the costs and benefits of mining coal. On remand, OSM will be obligated to consider a “middle ground” alternative that winds down coal-mining in Colstrip.

“This was a massive expansion of strip mining for the Colstrip plant, yet OSM largely ignored the impacts to water resources and how the expansion would contribute to the climate catastrophe that we are experiencing in Montana and across the nation,” said Derf Johnson, deputy director for the Montana Environmental Information Center. “Water is the lifeblood of this state. The mine’s operations as well as the inevitable burning of the coal will cause irreversible harm in Montana and downstream. OSM got caught doing the bidding of the mining industry instead of doing the work of the people.”

The case, filed in November 2019, resulted from the ongoing concern that OSM ignored the profound impacts that result from strip mining such a large area and how burning that coal would contribute to the already dire climate crisis. Area F would increase the mine size to over 30,000 acres, an area larger than Billings. The Rosebud coal mine exclusively supplies coal to the Colstrip Power Plant, which is the largest greenhouse gas polluter in Montana and one of the largest in the Western United States.

Coal mines across the country and Montana are closing due to decreased demand, and 70% of the Colstrip Power Plant owners are looking to exit the plant at the end of 2025. The recent expansions harm waters, which ranchers, farmers, and wildlife will need long after the mine is no longer operating.

“The court found that OSM once again put its thumb on the scale by considering the benefits of the mine but refusing to disclose the on-the-ground impacts that coal mining and burning have on area waters, wildlife, and the climate,” said Melissa Hornbein with the Western Environmental Law Center. “The law doesn’t allow that type of gamesmanship, and the climate and our stressed water resources deserve better.”

“From Yellowstone flooding to drought stricken farm and ranch lands, climate change is exacting an increasing toll on Montana’s environment and economy,” said David Merrill, senior organizer at Sierra Club. “Sun and wind power paired with batteries and other components can provide the same electricity, with the same reliability as coal or gas, for less money. What are we waiting for?”

Coal mining for energy is the dirtiest way to produce electricity. Several analyses show that if existing fossil fuel reserves are fully developed, pollution from those sources will push warming past 1.5 degrees Celsius. Avoiding such warming requires ending new investment in fossil fuel projects. If the coal from the Rosebud mine expansion were to be burned, it would result in approximately 120 million tons of greenhouse gas-related emissions, which is the net equivalent of 29 million passenger vehicles being driven for one year.

“Right now, it costs us more to pay for the damages from climate change than it does for us to build clean energy,” said Jeff Smith, co-chair of 350 Montana. “We have the technology. We have the money. And, in Montana, we have the skilled workers to make this transition. And our research says Montana’s cleanest energy is also Montana’s cheapest energy.”

“We can’t keep mining more coal and have any chance of confronting the climate crisis,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “This latest court ruling gives new hope for a full transition away from costly coal in Montana and beyond.”

Earthjustice and Western Environmental Law Center represented the Montana Environmental Information Center, Sierra Club, Indian People’s Action, 350 Montana, and WildEarth Guardians in this case.

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