Judge reinstates Obama-era coal-leasing ban

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Smoke raises from a chimney of a hard-coal-fired power station REUTERS/Timm Reichert

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  • Environmental groups pushed for renewed ban despite slump in coal interest
  • Federal judge says a thorough environmental review of the coal leasing program is needed

(Reuters) - A federal judge on Friday revived a nationwide Obama-era ban on new coal leases that was tossed during the Trump administration, saying a thorough environmental assessment is needed before the moratorium can be lifted.

In 2019 as a result of a lawsuit by the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and others, U.S. District Judge Brian Morris found any lifting of the coal-leasing ban required a National Environmental Policy Act review.

In April 2021 U.S. Interior Department Secretary Deb Haaland overturned the Trump-era reversal but stopped short of reinstating the ban itself.

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Environmental groups then asked Judge Morris to weigh in, arguing the administration left the door open for future coal development on federal lands despite their concerns that development could exacerbate the climate crisis.

Morris on Friday agreed with the environmental groups that Haaland's actions weren't enough. He said the ban needed to remain in place to be consistent with his 2019 ruling requiring an environmental review.

"The Haaland order maintains the potential environmental harm that could result from lifting the coal leasing moratorium ... that the court determined required NEPA review in its earlier order," Judge Morris said.

The newly reinstated ban comes amid a slump in federal coal leasing sales, according to government data. The Biden administration, which has identified climate change as a priority, launched a review of coal leasing impacts on climate change and taxpayers in April 2021.

Jenny Harbine, an attorney at Earthjustice who represented the environmental groups, said in a statement: “While this ruling reinstates the moratorium on new coal leasing on public lands, the Biden administration must go further by urgently phasing out the existing coal leases that are destroying our planet."

A spokesperson for the federal government didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

The case is Citizens for Clean Energy et al. v. U.S. Department of the Interior et al., District of Montana, No.4:17-cv-00030.

For the environmental groups: Jenny Harbine and Amanda Galvan of Earthjustice and Ted Zukoski of the Center for Biological Diversity

For the government: Joseph Kim, John Most and Marissa Piropato of the U.S. Department of Justice

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