After Zinke, Trump administration downplays effects of coal sales on public lands

FILE – In this March 29, 2017, file photo, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, accompanied by Republican members of Congress, signs an order lifting a moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands and a related order on coal royalties, at the Interior Department in Washington.  (Molly Riley/AP photo via Courthouse News)

(CN) – Officials with the Trump administration said Wednesday that resumption of coal sales from public lands made off-limits by the Obama administration will only slightly increase greenhouse gas emissions, a claim deemed as flawed by environmental groups.

Former U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke opened up coal sales on public lands in 2017, a move that U.S. District Judge Brian Morris said in an April 2019 ruling failed to properly examine the possible environmental impact.

Morris did not stop the government from proceeding with the sales, but ordered the Interior Department to create a review of potential environmental impacts the action may cause.

Environmental groups sued the Trump administration, claiming that the government’s review failed to account for widespread effects of continuing its coal sales.

“The suggestion that mining more fossil fuels from our nation’s public lands is not significant would be a joke if it weren’t so sad,”said Jenny Harbine with Earthjustice in an interview with the Associated Press. Harbine is representing the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and environmental advocates in the lawsuit.

The administration released documents Wednesday that admitted Zinke’s order sped up the resumption of coal sales before a three-year review started under Obama was finished. They said the sales would have restarted regardless of the review’s completion.

Coal sales were halted in 2016 amid concerns that mining companies were paying too low royalty rates and fuel burning worsened the climate crisis.

“The Zinke order terminated the pause (on coal lease sales) approximately two years ahead of schedule,” Trump officials wrote. “Because there is no basis for concluding that the Zinke order would result in a change in the amount of coal production or associated impacts in the long term…there would be no difference in cumulative (greenhouse gas) emissions.”

Mining companies have extracted 4 billion tons of coal from federal lands in the last ten years, generating $10 billion in revenue to state and federal governments.

The AP contributed to this report.