Joined by the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and several environmental groups, Democratic attorneys general from California, New York, New Mexico and Washington state filed a lawsuit challenging the administration's coal program in U.S. District Court in Montana.
They alleged the administration acted illegally when it resumed coal sales that had been halted under Obama due to climate change and other concerns. The case is among scores of legal challenges that environmentalists and their political allies have launched to counter the Trump administration's push for more domestic energy production and less stringent regulations.
Interior Department spokesman Conner Swanson panned the lawsuit as a “laughable attempt" to revive an issue that the court already addressed. Under Trump, the Department of Interior lifted a 2016 moratorium on federal coal sales and concluded they have limited environmental impacts.
“The Department is confident the court will agree that the analysis by our career experts is lawful and based on the best available science," Swanson said. Attorneys for the states and other plaintiffs in the case argued that the administration's environmental review was flawed, because it was based on just four leases that were sold under Trump and did not look at hundreds of existing leases and potential future sales.
“The Trump administration has repeatedly thrown out the rule book in order to benefit super polluting coal companies. It’s not only immoral – it’s illegal, and we intend to prove it,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement.
Federal coal sales account for about 40% of U.S. coal production, primarily from large strip mines in western states including Wyoming, Colorado, Montana and Utah. Coal mining companies saw demand for the fuel drop dramatically over the past decade due to competition from natural gas and renewable fuel sources. Trump has sought to prop the industry back up, but that's done little to slow its downward spiral and the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the decline.
In May, U.S. District Judge Brian Morris said the administration had fixed its initial failures to consider the climate change consequences from ending the moratorium. That ruling came after the administration in February released an analysis that said resuming coal sales would mean little difference over time in greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal.
But Morris declined to weigh in regarding the accuracy of the administration’s conclusions, saying only that the analysis was enough to fulfill the administration’s immediate obligations. The state attorneys general said the administration considered emissions only from a handful of leases and failed to capture the cumulative, long-term impact of the coal program.
They argue the Interior Department analysis also ignored other harms, including damage to wildlife and the land from coal mining, pollution from burning the fuel and the vast quantifies of toxic ash that is generated by coal-burning power plants.