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Trump Sued for Catering to Big Coal at Expense of Taxpayers

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Arch Coal's Black Thunder Mine, Powder River Basin, Wyoming. More than 80 percent of the federal coal applied for under paused leases is in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana. Mining operations often occur at the expense of agricultural producers. Photo credit: EcoFlight

A coalition is suing the Trump administration this week over an order opening tens of thousands of acres of public lands to the coal industry. Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke's order lifting a moratorium on federal coal leasing comes a day after President Trump's executive order rolling back protections for public health, climate and the environment.


The pause in leasing was ordered last year under the Obama administration to allow time to reform the federal program to protect the climate and American taxpayers. In just the first stage of that review, completed this January, the Interior Department found that coal mining fouls the air, pollutes streams and destroys wildlife habitat on public land. More than one-tenth of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, the pollution driving climate change, come from federal coal.

In addition to studying these impacts, the Interior Department previously committed to evaluate options for improving returns to taxpayers before resuming leasing. Internal Interior Department and independent Government Accountability Office audits have recently concluded that the current leasing system shortchanges taxpayers while subsidizing coal mining. The Trump administration's decision to resume federal coal leasing will lock in these subsidies—in addition to harmful environmental impacts—before they are fully studied.

"The Trump administration has basically announced a fire sale to revive the coal industry," said Art Hayes, a southeastern Montana rancher who lives downstream from the Decker and Spring Creek mines, which both have pending lease applications that will move forward when the moratorium is lifted. "But in the process, they are leaving us ranchers that rely on clean water and a healthy climate in the dust. Putting business before people is just wrong."

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday by Earthjustice on behalf of a coalition of local, regional and national groups working to protect public lands, air and water quality and the health of the planet, including: Citizens for Clean Energy, Montana Environmental Information Center, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, WildEarth Guardians and Defenders of Wildlife. The Northern Cheyenne Tribe is also suing to challenge the decision.

"No one voted to pollute our public lands, air or drinking water in the last election, yet the Trump administration is doing the bidding of powerful polluters as nearly its first order of business," said Earthjustice attorney Jenny Harbine, who is leading the effort to challenge the president's actions. "Our legal system remains an important backstop against the abuses of power we've witnessed over the course of the past two months. That's why we're going to court to defend our public lands, clean air and water and a healthy climate for all."

When the moratorium was put in place, the Interior Department estimated then-current federal leases produced enough coal to supply the country's needs for 20 years. Further, Goldman Sachs analysts last year issued a report concluding that the "decline in long-term demand [for coal] appears to be irreversible."

Coal mined from public lands contributes more than 40 percent of the U.S.' coal and approximately 10 percent of its greenhouse gas pollution. Coal mining and combustion also impose heavy air-quality and public-health costs through emissions of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and mercury. Scientists have called on the U.S. to stop new coal leasing to help prevent the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.

"Trump has upended a public process intended to stop taxpayer losses on coal mined from our public lands," said Bill Corcoran, Western regional campaign director for Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. "Today's irrational action does nothing to reverse the coal industry's market-driven decline. This isn't putting Americans first, this is putting corporate polluters first."

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