Montana coal mine challenged by environmental groups on climate groundsDespite declining demand for coal, the Trump administration approved a major expansion of a mine, now being challenged by environmental groups. Photo credit: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

By Karen Savage

The Trump administration failed to consider climate impacts when it approved the expansion of the Rosebud Coal Mine in Montana, according to a lawsuit filed by environmental groups Monday.

The groups— Montana Environmental Information Center, Indian People’s Action, 350 Montana, the Sierra Club and Wild Earth Guardians—allege the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) “refused to disclose the extent of numerous harmful impacts from the mine expansion, including major adverse impacts to surface waters and the climate-change worsening impacts of over 100 million tons of greenhouse gases that will be emitted from burning the coal.”

By failing to disclose that information, the groups say OSMRE, an agency within the Department of the Interior, violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which states that agencies must consider the “environmental and related social and economic effects” of a proposed project and disclose them to the public. 

“The Trump administration’s continued disdain for protecting the public’s water resources and climate from the threats posed by fossil fuel development is damaging our economy and precious resources,” said Anne Hedges, deputy director and lead lobbyist for the Montana Environmental Information Center.

The mine is owned by Westmoreland Rosebud Mining, LLC and is one of the largest coal mines in the country. Only two plants—Colstrip Power Plant, which by law can only burn coal from the Rosebud mine, and the Rosebud Power Plant—burn its coal. The majority is burned by Colstrip.

OSMRE approved the proposed expansion earlier this year, adding an additional 6,748 acres to the already sprawling Rosebud mine. The additional acres contain approximately 70 million tons of coal, which could extend the life of the mine by about 19 years.  

Together the Rosebud mine and Colstrip power plant are among the largest emitters of greenhouse gas pollution in the nation, averaging about 15 million tons of carbon emissions per year, according to the groups. When combusted, coal in the expansion area will release more than 100 million tons of additional carbon over the next 19 years.

“Using the social cost of carbon protocol developed by the Federal Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of Carbon, these emissions will cause billions of dollars in climate change damages, significantly exceeding the value of the coal,” Shiloh S. Hernandez, an attorney for the Western Environmental Center, wrote in the complaint. 

OSMRE’s approval is even harder to swallow considering the demand for Colstip’s coal-fired power—and therefore Rosebud’s coal—is rapidly drying up, the groups say.

Washington state, Colstrip’s biggest consumer, passed a law earlier this year banning the use of coal power beginning in 2025. Oregon, its next largest consumer, is gradually phasing out all coal power between now and 2035.

“It makes no sense to sacrifice more of Montana’s fresh water resources to massively expand a coal mine whose only customer is buying less coal,” said Mike Scott, Billings-based senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club. “It’s time to focus on putting people to work restoring and reclaiming the existing mine rather than attempting to lock in two decades worth of coal for a plant that doesn’t need it.”

Due to the declining market for coal-fired power, half of Colstrip’s operating units will close at the end of this year and a majority of the utilities that make up the plant’s ownership have said they will pull their resources out of the plant in the next 10 years.

“The Trump Administration unfortunately is trying to prop up a dying coal industry, rather than help our nation transition away from fossil fuels,” said Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Program Director for WildEarth Guardians.

OSMRE does not comment on litigation, an agency spokesperson said.

By ignoring the rapidly dropping coal demand, the groups charge that OSMRE has likely harmed the local community by not preparing it for the abrupt end of the coal economy and by not offering alternatives that would lead to a “just transition to clean, renewable energy” jobs.

George Price, environmental issues coordinator for Indian Peoples’ Action, said the expansion is wrong for the local community and wrong for the global climate.

“Instead of expanding coal mining and other fossil fuel-based energy production, we need to be moving in the opposite direction,” Price said.

“Rather than using our tax dollars to subsidize fossil fuel industries, the government should be using that money to retrain employees of coal mines and oil companies to work in clean, environmentally sustainable industries.” 

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