Montana Environmental Information Center v. U.S. Office of Surface Mining

Climate Change
Environmental Impact Assessment
Mining Coal mining

Montana Environmental Information Center v. U.S. Office of Surface Mining, Civ. No. 15-106-M-DWM (D. Mont. 2017)
August 14, 2017

Environmental organizations challenged a decision by the Office of Surface Mining to allow the expansion of the Bull Mountains Mine No. 1 underground coal mining operation in the U.S. state of Montana.  Specifically, the mining company sought to lease more than 2,600 acres of U.S. government-owned coal lands to allow the company to continue producing coal.  It was estimated that the expansion would open access to more than 132 million tons of coal under government- and privately-owned land.  A majority (95%) of the coal produced at the mine is shipped overseas to Korea, Japan, and the Netherlands. 

The Office of Surface Management (OSM) determined that the modification to the mining plan would not have a significant impact to the environment and decided not to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS), opting for a less-detailed environmental assessment (EA) instead.  The environmental organizations alleged, among other things, that the EA was deficient because OSM failed to take a “hard

look” at the indirect and cumulative effects of coal transportation, coal exports, and coal combustion related to the project, and ignored foreseeable greenhouse gas emissions. 

With regard to the indirect and cumulative impacts of coal transportation, the district court agreed with the environmental organizations that the OSM unreasonably limited the scope of its analysis.  The court rejected OSM’s claim that evaluating the environmental impacts of coal transportation would be “speculative” given the uncertainty about future transportation routes and combustion locations.  The court noted that there are limited rail routes for coal transportation to export terminals outside of Montana and the EA contained estimates of where the coal would be shipped; therefore, “a degree of reasonable foreseeability exists” for OSM to consider indirect and cumulative effects of coal transportation. Id., pp. 28-32. The court also rejected OSM’s claim that there were no reliable methods to assess the social and environmental impacts of coal trains.  Id., p. 32.

Concerning coal combustion, the environmental organizations claimed the EA lacked an adequate analysis of non-greenhouse gas pollution impacts that would result from burning the coal extracted from the Bull Mountains mine. The district court agreed, and declared that an analysis of the impacts of non-greenhouse gas emissions is not impractical or highly speculative, even if the exact locations of combustion are uncertain.  Id., pp. 34-35.  

Although the EA estimated the quantity of greenhouse gas emissions that would occur from coal combustion, the environmental organizations argued that OSM  neglected to assess the indirect and cumulative impacts of these emissions in the EA for the proposed mine expansion, even though the agency had a cost-benefit tool available for this purpose.

The district court held that although cost-benefit analysis is not required in environmental assessments, the OSM improperly emphasized the economic benefits of coal production while completely excluding any discussion of the costs of greenhouse gas emissions.  The court stated: “[T]he Mining Plan EA concluded not that the specific effects of greenhouse gas emissions from the expansion would be too uncertain to predict, but that there would in fact be no effects from those emissions, because other coal would be burned in its stead. This conclusion is illogical, and places the Enforcement Office’s thumb on the scale by inflating the benefits of the action while minimizing its impacts.” Id., p. 46. 

The district court blocked further coal mining within the proposed expansion areas.  Id., p. 64.  The court subsequently modified the injunction to allow for limited development work (namely, displacing and storing no more than 170,000 tons of federal coal in one section of the permit boundary to facilitate the continued mining of private coal which the injunction cannot control) because a blanket injunction would not address the bulk of the harms identified by the plaintiff but would inflict undue economic injury on the defendant mining company’s employees. Mont. Envtl. Info. Ctr. v. U.S. Office of Surface Mining, CV 15-106-M-DWM (D. Mont. Nov. 3, 2017), available at Nonetheless, the court emphasized that “[t]he modest modification of the scope of the injunction in this case must not be construed as suggesting the Agency did what the law and Congress requires it to do.”