Court stops expansion of country’s largest proposed underground coal mine over climate impacts

U.S. Office of Surface Mining must consider social cost of climate change when permitting new mines, judge says


In a rebuff to the Trump administration’s decision to ignore climate change in federal decision-making, a U.S. District Court judge on August 14th invalidated a proposed expansion of Signal Peak Energy’s Bull Mountain mine because its climate impacts were not adequately considered.

Judge Donald W. Molloy of the District Court of Montana ruled that the federal Office of Surface Mining (OSM) illegally put its “thumb on the scale by inflating the benefits of the action while minimizing its impacts” when analyzing the proposed mine expansion. The judge ordered that mining immediately stop in the proposed expansion area, located south of Roundup, Montana.

OSM’s approval would have allowed the mine to become the largest underground coal mine in the country based on annual production.

The decision marks yet another instance of the administration’s pro-polluter agenda hitting a roadblock in the courts. The court ruled that OSM violated the National Environmental Policy Act by allowing Signal Peak to expand without adequately analyzing the environmental impacts. The court specifically rejected OSM’s decision to tout purported economic benefits, such as local taxes, while simultaneously refusing to use the social cost of carbon, or any other method, to analyze those harms.

The court also held that OSM did not properly consider the air quality and safety impacts of additional uncovered coal trains travelling through communities across the Pacific Northwest. This expansion would also greatly increase coal train traffic across the region, which is of significant concern to many communities along the rail route. Approximately 95 percent of the coal from Bull Mountain is exported, primarily to Asian markets that are rapidly turning away from coal-fired power due to its impact on air quality and contributions to climate disruption. Declining demand for coal led one of the mine’s owners to write off their stake in the mine, saying it was worth nothing.

Sierra Club, Montana Environmental Information Center, and Montana Elders for a Livable Tomorrow (MELT) were co-plaintiffs in the case, represented by the Western Environmental Law Center. They released the following statements:

“Federal agencies have a legal responsibility to account for the heavy burden that burning coal places on every aspect of public health and our economy,” said Bill Corcoran, Regional Campaign Director for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. “From air and water pollution to wildfires and coastal flooding, conventional coal pollution and climate disruption are costing Americans billions of dollars in healthcare costs and economic opportunities. Federal agencies must act on that reality, not stick their heads in the sand and invent ways to ignore it.”

“A federal agency should not be allowed to put its thumb on the scale when making decisions of this magnitude. The law requires, and the public deserves, an honest analysis of the risks and the benefits of proposals such as these,” said Anne Hedges, with the Montana Environmental Information Center.  “The company and a government agency tried to cut corners once again. Thankfully the court didn’t let that happen.”

“This case represents an important step forward in accounting for the impacts of coal transport and combustion,” said Laura King of the Western Environmental Law Center. “We’re closer today to a true representation of the costs of burning fossil fuels than we were yesterday.”

“As fires burn across the state and the air fills with smoke, we are constantly reminded that climate change poses a significant risk to Montanans’ health. These impacts deserve serious consideration when government agencies decide whether or not to approve a proposal for the largest underground coal mine in the United States. People across Montana deserve to know what the impacts will be from increased rail traffic and the burning of coal,” said Harold Hoem with Montana Elders for a Livable Tomorrow.

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