By Matt Volz
May 10, 2017 - Four U.S. states filed a lawsuit Tuesday over President Donald Trump's decision to restart the sale of coal leases on federal lands, saying the Obama-era block of the leasing program was reversed without studying what's best for the environment and for taxpayers.
The attorneys general of California, New Mexico, New York and Washington, all Democrats, said bringing back the federal coal lease program without an environmental review risks worsening the effects of climate change on those states while shortchanging them for the coal taken from public lands.
"Climate change has to be considered when we are talking about compensating states and New Mexico citizens for their resources," said Cholla Khoury, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas' director of consumer and environmental protection.
The U.S. Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management administers 306 coal leases in 10 states, producing more than 4 billion tons of coal over the past decade. Most of that coal — 85 percent — comes from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana.
Production and combustion of coal from federal lands accounted for about 11 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2014.
The Obama administration blocked the sale of new leases in 2016 to conduct an environmental study and a review of the royalties that mining companies pay the U.S. government for coal that's extracted. Federal officials and members of Congress said the current royalty rates were shortchanging taxpayers.
In January, Interior officials said they were considering raising those royalty rates to offset the effects of climate change from burning the coal.
In March, President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to amend or withdraw the coal leasing program moratorium.
The next day, Zinke did so, saying the Obama administration's environmental review would cost "many millions of dollars" and that improvements to the program can be made without a full-scale environmental review.
The lawsuit by the four attorneys general, which was filed in Great Falls, Montana, says the reversal was made "with no justification other than an objection to the time and cost of complying with the law."
Lifting the moratorium without properly considering the environmental effects or ensuring that the program is providing fair market value for the publicly owned coal violates federal laws, they allege.
"They didn't follow the law," Khoury said. "You can't make piecemeal changes without doing this assessment to fully understand all parts of this program."
Interior Department officials did not return telephone and email messages seeking comment.