A federal judge late yesterday ruled the U.S. Department of the Interior illegally approved a coal mine expansion in southeast Montana, finding that officials inappropriately ignored climate costs.
In 2017, WildEarth Guardians, Montana Environmental Information Center, and the Western Environmental Law Center filed suit over Interior’s approval of an expansion of the Spring Creek mine, the largest coal mine in Montana.
The suit targeted the failure of Interior to account for the climate costs of approving more coal mining and its inevitable burning.
“Climate change is harming those things Montanans care most about. Increased wildfire activity in Montana causes unsafe air quality and economic devastation. Drought is increasingly harming agriculture and outdoor recreation and businesses. The increasing costs of climate change can no longer be ignored. The federal government loves to tout the benefits of fossil fuels such as coal from the Spring Creek mine but the law requires consideration of both benefits and costs. It’s a relief when they are caught putting their thumb on the scale,” said Anne Hedges, Deputy Director of the Montana Environmental Information Center.
In a ruling recommending the reversal of the Spring Creek mine expansion, a federal magistrate judge rejected the government’s failure to account for carbon costs and other climate-related considerations, stating:
Regardless of administration policies that ebb and flow with the political tides, agencies must nevertheless comply with their obligation to properly quantify costs when they have touted economic benefits of a proposed action.
“The bottom line is, politics don’t trump facts,” said Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Program Director for WildEarth Guardians. “This ruling is another critical blow to President Trump’s policy of climate denial and another win for climate action and clean energy.”
The Spring Creek mine, a large open pit surface mine, is owned by Cloud Peak Energy and ships coal to power plants in the Midwest, Washington, and Arizona. The company also ships coal to the Pacific Northwest for export to Asia.
The mine is part of the Powder River Basin, the nation’s largest coal producing region. More than 43 percent of all coal mined in the U.S. comes from this area, making it a root contributor to climate change and a key climate battleground.
Interior’s approval authorized a 1,117-acre expansion of the Spring Creek mine and an additional 84.8 million tons of coal for strip mining. All told, more than 150 million metric tons of carbon dioxide would be unleashed, equal to the amount released by 31 million cars annually (according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s greenhouse gas equivalency calculator).
Officials claimed these emissions would not be significant, a claim the federal magistrate soundly rejected.
While the magistrate stopped short of recommending a halt to mining, the parties to the case have 14 days to file objections and could seek an injunction on mining. A federal judge will consider any objections and issue a final ruling shortly after the 14-day period.