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Powder River Basin energy future uncertain following court ruling

Stephanie Joyce / Wyoming Public Media

The future of energy production in parts of Wyoming and Montana remains uncertain following a court ruling last week.

A federal judge rejected the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) two resource management plans for the Powder River Basin, which is a region in Wyoming and Montana that produces more than 40 percent of U.S. coal.

U.S. District Judge Brian Morris said the BLM failed to properly consider the environmental and human health consequences from mining coal. This will be the second time the BLM has had to re-draft its resource management plans for the Powder River Basin, as a federal judge ordered a revision once before in 2018.

Melissa Hornbein, a senior attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, said the BLM has a year to create a new resource management plan that takes into account public health.

“The BLM has to say how many people will be sickened and die as a result of its resource extraction decisions on public lands,” she said.

The BLM also has to consider alternative land use options, like limiting or eliminating coal mine expansion.

"Put simply, [the National Environmental Policy Act] requires BLM to bookend its analysis by considering a no-future-leasing alternative and at least one alternative that further reduce[s] leasing by reducing the potential for expansion," Judge Morris wrote in the ruling. "Coal mining represents a potentially allowable use of public lands, but BLM is not required to lease public lands. The multiple use mandate does not bar BLM from considering a no-leasing alternative for public lands.”

The ruling requires new or pending coal, oil and natural gas leases in the area to undergo a lengthy environmental review that meets the judges requests.

Shiloh Hernandez, a senior attorney with Earthjustice, said this court decision could have broad implications.

“The Powder River Basin, which is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gasses in the entire United States, and the court said, ‘BLM, you actually have to consider a future where fossil fuel development is wound down to the point of zero leasing.’”

The BLM said it does not comment on pending litigation.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.
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