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Court orders feds to consider coal extraction alternatives on public land

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management must conduct comprehensive environmental analyses that consider alternatives to exploiting coal before issuing more leases from two field offices in Wyoming and Montana, a federal judge ruled March 23.

Judge Brian Morris of the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana ordered the BLM to submit analyses for any new or pending leases of coal, oil or gas resources in the areas subject to 20-year resource management plans, or RMPs, under the field offices in Miles City, Mont., and Buffalo, Wyo.

"BLM cannot acknowledge that climate change concerns defined, in part, the scope of the RMP revision while simultaneously foreclosing consideration of alternatives that would reduce the amount of available coal based upon deference to earlier coal screenings that had failed to consider climate change," Morris wrote. "[The National Environmental Policy Act] requires BLM to conduct new coal screening and consider climate change impacts to make a reasoned decision on the amount of recoverable coal made available in the RMPs."

He ordered the agency to supplement final environmental impact statements made for the RMPs with analysis of the environmental consequences of the downstream combustion of coal, oil and gas open to development under each plan.

The Western Organization of Resource Councils, Montana Environmental Information Center, Powder River Basin Resource Council, Northern Plains Resource Council, the Sierra Club, and the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the BLM in March 2016 over RMPs the agency had approved in the Powder River Basin. The environmental groups argued that the BLM did not present alternatives that would reduce the amount of coal available for leasing; consider the direct, indirect and cumulative impacts of the fossil fuel development under the plans; or consider measures to reduce methane emissions from resource development.

The Buffalo plan estimated the BLM would lease 10.2 billion tons of coal over 20 years.

Nathaniel Shoaff, a senior attorney for the Sierra Club, told S&P Global Market Intelligence that the environmental groups challenged the plans because they covered the largest fossil fuel-producing area in the U.S.

"The main point is that when the BLM does this big-picture review, they should be taking a holistic look at what the climate impacts are of choosing to use our public lands to promote the fossil fuel industry. They didn't do that here," he said.

The judge denied the plaintiffs' request to force the BLM to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of potential climate change impacts outside the geographic reach of the plans.

The decision occurred the same day that a separate appeals court heard oral arguments regarding the U.S. Department of the Interior's refusal to consider how the federal coal leasing program can have a cumulative impact on climate change.

A BLM spokesperson said that while the court upheld several aspects of its plans, it is reviewing the decision to determine the next steps for the claims found to be in noncompliance with the National Environmental Policy Act.