Judges on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit have unanimously rejected an argument made by environmentalists that the Trump administration has to consider the environmental consequences of leasing federal land for coal mining.
The Western Organization of Resource Councils and Friends of the Earth argued that, under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the government was required to update its environmental impact statement in light of new scientific evidence on the role of coal in climate change. As NEPA was adopted in 1979, the groups argued that the government’s assessment of the environmental damage of leasing more land for coal mining was based on out-of-date information.
The three judges ruled against the appeal, however, claiming that NEPA doesn’t obligate the government to conduct a new environmental impact assessment.
“The fact that actions continue to occur in compliance with the program does not render the original action incomplete,” wrote Judge Harry Edwards in the ruling. “Appellants have failed to identify any specific pending action, apart from the program’s continued existence, that qualifies as a ‘major federal action’ under [the] NEPA.”
While the Obama administration ended new coal mining leases in 2016 and started work on a new environmental review, the Trump administration reversed on these policies in 2017. The government issued new coal mining leases as early as March of last year and the same month, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke stopped the environmental review process.
Interior spokesperson Faith Vander Voort said: “For the second time, a federal judge proved that the environmental special interest groups are only interested in wasting taxpayer dollars on frivolous litigation. The department will continue to run a responsible coal leasing program that supports jobs and economic vitality for rural communities.”
Around 40% of the United States’ coal is produced on federal land, and the ruling could open up yet more land to coal mining operations. According to Resources for the Future, coal mining contributes to 13% of the country’s greenhouse gases, equivalent to 769 million tons of carbon dioxide.