Ruling the U.S. Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management violated federal law, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit held the agency failed to rationally account for the climate impacts of authorizing the sale of nearly two billion tons of publicly owned coal.
The significance of this ruling can’t be overstated. For one thing, it came from a federal appeals court, which is one step down from the U.S. Supreme Court, and now serves as binding precedent. For another, the 10th Circuit court of appeals rarely overrules federal agencies and rarely rarely rules in favor of environmental interests.
It’s not that the case didn’t have a chance and not that WildEarth Guardians didn’t put its best legal foot forward. It’s just that if history was any indication, the odds were not good.
Described as a “root contributor” to global warming, the Powder River Basin of northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana is home to 16 massive strip mines that produce more than 40% of all coal in the U.S. This coal fuels hundreds of power plants (and is even exported overseas), ultimately contributing to 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions in America.
That’s makes coal mining in the Powder River Basin the source of around 1 billion metric tons of carbon every year. To put that into perspective, the Keystone tar sands pipeline would have unleashed 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon over its entire life.
That is a staggering amount of carbon pollution. And while it makes coal mining in the Powder River Basin a major threat to the climate, it also presents a major opportunity. It means if we can keep coal in the ground here, we can really start to make some progress for the planet.
Which is why the 10th Circuit’s ruling is all-the-more awesome. Because it didn’t just strike at coal mining in the Powder River Basin, it struck at the heart of the beast itself.
Consider that the lawsuit was over some of the largest sales of publicly owned coal ever to be approved by the federal government, which were intended to expand the two largest mines in the region (and arguably two of the largest coal mines in the world)–the North Antelope-Rochelle and Black Thunder mines, which are owned by the two largest coal companies in the U.S. (and arguably two of the largest privately owned coal companies in the world)–Peabody Energy and Arch Coal.
Seriously, in terms of confronting the fossil fuel industry in America, it doesn’t get any bigger than this. And it means that with this federal court ruling, we now have a chance to keep fossil fuels in the ground at an incomparable scale. Keeping two billion tons of Powder River Basin coal in the ground alone stands to prevent 3.3 billion metric tons of carbon from being unleashed. That’s like shutting down 20 coal-fired power plants.
Not only that, but knocking the coal industry on its heels in the Powder River Basin truly stands to reverberate across the country. Even in spite of Trump’s climate denial, this ruling will help ensure that coal companies and their cronies in the federal government won’t be able to derail a move from fossil fuels to clean energy.
No doubt, we still have a fight on our hands. In the coming weeks, we’ll be heading back to the courtroom to argue that the Bureau of Land Management’s coal sales should be completely reversed (or, as the courts say, “vacated”).
And the coal industry continues to try to maintain a chokehold on our nation’s energy supplies. Right now, the Bureau of Land Management is seeking public comment on a plan to auction off more publicly owned coal in the Powder River Basin so coal giant, Cloud Peak Energy, can expand its Antelope mine (and last week, the agency held a public hearing on the plan, click here to see our testimony).
Still, with persistence, we are winning. Keep in mind that our latest win in court came after eight years of dogged advocacy. It was back in 2009 that we first called attention to the climate disaster unfolding in the Powder River Basin and began targeting the federal government’s sale of publicly owned coal in the region.
While we wish we could keep all coal in the ground yesterday, the reality is, we are making progress. It may seem slow, but we are surely keeping fossil fuels in the ground where it matters most.