BILLINGS – U.S. officials improperly downplayed the climate change effects from burning coal when they approved a large expansion of an underground Montana coal mine that would release an estimated 190 million tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, a court ruled.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in a 2-1 ruling that Interior Department officials “hid the ball” during the Trump administration, by failing to fully account for emissions from burning the fuel in a 2018 environmental analysis.
A judge previously ruled against the disputed expansion of Signal Peak Energy’s Bull Mountain mine in 2017, but allowed mining to continue while a lawsuit brought by environmentalists proceeded.
Monday’s ruling sends the case back to the district court level to decide the fate of the mine’s federal permit.
It marks the latest in long string of decisions against the U.S. government going back to the Obama administration for failing to adequately consider climate damages from extracting and burning fossil fuels.
The appeals court faulted the government for comparing emissions from the mine against total global emissions. That approach “predestined that the emissions would appear relatively minor,” Circuit Judge Morgan Christen wrote.
Circuit Judge Ryan Nelson disagreed, saying in a dissenting opinion that the court should have deferred to the Interior Department’s expertise after agency officials determined the expansion would not significantly affect the environment.
An attorney for environmental groups that challenged the mine expansion said the ruling could have impacts for mines across the country.
“They have to evaluate the impacts of billowing hundreds of millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere,” said Derf Johnson with the Montana Environmental Information Center.
The mine near Roundup is a major employer in central Montana with about 250 workers. Its coal has been exported to countries including South Korea, Japan and the Netherlands, according to court documents.
Interior spokesperson Tyler Cherry said the agency was reviewing the ruling. Signal Peak representatives did not immediately respond to the ruling.
The Biden administration last year announced it will review the climate impacts of a U.S. coal leasing program that allows companies to mine vast reserves of the fuel from public lands. It has also priced future climate damage s from burning fossil fuels at about $51 for every ton of carbon dioxide emitted, a figure known as the social cost of carbon.
Environmentalists had sought a ruling that would compel officials to apply the social cost of carbon to Signal Peak’s mine, but the court rejected the request and said how effects are measured is up to the government.
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