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Montana judge denies Biden administration’s request to delay coal leasing lawsuit

The Spring Creek mine near Decker is the largest in Montana. (MTN News)

(CN) — A federal judge in Montana rebuffed efforts by the Biden administration to pause a lawsuit by several states, tribes and environmental groups seeking to end coal mining lease sales on federal land.

The order comes after years of litigation stemming from the Trump administration’s decision to lift a pause enacted by President Obama on the federal coal leasing program due to concerns about the effects of coal on climate change. A number of states, tribes and advocacy groups took the Trump administration to court after then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s order, a legal fight that only got nastier after the Bureau of Land Management found in 2020 that lifting the pause wouldn’t change greenhouse gas levels.

While activity under the coal program has slowed dramatically since it was reinstated as more people flock to cleaner energy alternatives, environmental groups want the program ended for good — and are not satisfied with how the new administration is handling the issue.

While Interior Secretary Deb Haaland canceled the Trump administration’s order this past April, officials did not officially reinstate the coal leasing pause and said they would like to review the matter more. The Biden administration asked U.S. District Judge Brian Morris for a three-month stay so federal agencies could have more time to plot out their new coal leasing policies.

But the judge wasn’t swayed by their request. On Thursday evening, Morris rebuked the request and said a delay was unnecessary.

In an 8-page ruling, the Barack Obama appointee noted the court already granted the Biden administration a brief delay in the case to help with Biden’s transition to power, and any further attempts to delay a nearly five-year-old case would only complicate things.

“This case will be approaching its fifth birthday,” Morris wrote. “Federal defendants’ attempt to delay this case — an attempt filed the day before plaintiffs filed their motions and briefs as scheduled — only would complicate and delay matters.”

The judge found the states and groups bringing the suit have a direct interest in seeing a swift end to the case. The many lease applications pending for thousands of acres of federal land would amount to at least 1 billion tons of coal mined, and with the feds signaling leases might still be issued while the case is pending, delaying litigation could prove costly to environmental groups looking to curb climate change.

Morris didn’t buy the Biden administration’s arguments a delay would give officials time to better review Trump’s order lifting the coal program pause. He noted the government has not outlined any timeline on how long that review could take, and that once it’s done it will only result in an official report. Actual policy change will take even more time, all while environmentalists are forced to wait and endure the hardships of delay, he wrote.

A stay in the case, Morris said, would be unfair to those looking for a resolution to an already-lengthy legal battle. He ordered the feds to file their next round of briefs by the end of the month with an eye to wrapping up the paper phase of the case by September.

The parties did not respond to requests for comment by press time.