Judge: US can’t delay challenge to public land coal sales

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A U.S. judge has rejected the Biden administration’s attempt to delay a lawsuit from several states and environmentalists who are seeking to end lease sales for coal mining on federal lands.

The coal leasing program was temporarily shut down under President Barack Obama because of concerns about climate change, and then revived by the Trump administration. There have been few sales in the years since because the use of coal has plummeted as utilities turn to cleaner-burning fuels.

But environmentalists want to shut down the program permanently, and have been frustrated by the Biden administration’s attempts to delay a legal challenge pending before U.S. District Brian Morris in Montana.

Morris issued an order late Thursday denying the Biden administration’s attempt to delay the case for another three months, after already being granted a two-month extension in March.

Morris said lease applications are pending for thousands of acres of land holding at least 1 billion tons of coal, and the plaintiffs in the case face potential damage if their challenge to the program is stalled by the administration.

California, New Mexico, Washington state and New York sued after then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke revived coal lease sales in 2017. The Northern Cheyenne Tribe joined by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups also filed a legal challenge, while state officials from Wyoming and Montana have argued against reviving the moratorium.

In April, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland canceled Zinke’s order. But officials said that did not not automatically reinstate the coal moratorium and Haaland said her agency needed to further review the issue.

Attorneys for the tribe and environmental groups said in court documents that the Haaland order was not enough, and asked Morris to intervene so that a moratorium on coal sales is restored.

“Although the Biden administration has identified the critical need to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, Federal Defendants have not yet signaled any change from the prior administration’s coal-leasing policy that is a major source of such emissions,” wrote Earthjustice attorney Jenny Harbine, who represents environmental groups and the Northern Cheyenne.

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