BILLINGS — Environmental groups that vowed to fight President Donald Trump’s efforts to roll back his predecessor’s plans to curb global warming made good on their promises Wednesday, teaming up with an American Indian tribe to ask a federal court to block an order that lifts restrictions on coal sales from federal lands.
The Interior Department last year placed a moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands to review the climate change impacts of burning the fuel and whether taxpayers were getting a fair return. But Trump on Tuesday signed a sweeping executive order that included lifting the moratorium, and also initiated a review of former President Barack Obama’s signature plan to restrict greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.
Environmentalists say lifting the moratorium will worsen climate change and allow coal to be sold for unfairly low prices.
“It’s really just a hail Mary to a dying industry,” said Jenny Harbine, an Earthjustice attorney who filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Montana on behalf of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Sierra Club, and Center for Biological Diversity.
The White House and Department of Justice did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment on the lawsuit.
Environmental groups have been preparing for months to fight the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks, including by hiring more lawyers and raising money. Trump, who has called global warming a “hoax” invented by the Chinese, said during his campaign that he would kill Obama’s climate plans and bring back coal jobs.
Advocates said they also will work to mobilize public opposition to the executive order, saying they expect a backlash from Americans who worry about climate change.
“This is not what most people elected Trump to do,” said David Goldston, director of government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Poll after poll shows that the public supports climate action.”
A poll released in September found 71 percent of Americans want the U.S. government to do something about global warming, including 6 percent who think the government should act even though they are not sure that climate change is happening. That poll, which also found most Americans are willing to pay a little more each month to fight global warming, was conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago.
While Republicans have blamed Obama-era environmental regulations for the loss of coal jobs, federal data show that U.S. mines have been losing jobs for decades because of automation and competition from natural gas; solar panels and wind turbines now can produce emissions-free electricity cheaper than burning coal.
But many people in coal country are counting on the jobs that Trump has promised, and industry advocates praised his orders.
“These executive actions are a welcome departure from the previous administration’s strategy of making energy more expensive through costly, job-killing regulations that choked our economy,” said U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donohue.
Trump’s order also will initiate a review of efforts to reduce methane emissions in oil and natural gas production, and will rescind Obama-era actions that addressed climate change and national security and efforts to prepare the country for the impacts of climate change. The administration still is deciding whether to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change.
And on Wednesday, the administration asked a federal appeals court to postpone a ruling on lawsuits over the plan, saying it could be changed or rescinded.
A coalition of 16 states and the District of Columbia said they will oppose any effort to withdraw the Clean Power Plan or seek dismissal of a pending legal case, while environmental advocates said they’re also ready to step in to defend environmental laws if the U.S. government does not.
“The president doesn’t get to simply rewrite safeguards; they have to … prove the changes are in line with the law and science,” said the NRDC’s Goldston. “I think that’s going to be a high hurdle for them.”
Environmentalists say Trump’s actions will put the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage to other countries that are embracing clean energy, which they say could create thousands of new jobs.
Even so, they believe efforts to revive coal ultimately will fail because many states and industries already have been switching to renewable energy or natural gas.
“Those decisions are being made at the state level and plant by plant,” said Earthjustice President Trip Van Noppen, who said his group is “continuing to work aggressively to retire dirty coal plants.”
“Coal is not coming back,” Van Noppen added. “While the president is taking big splashy action, he is actually doomed to fail.”