Western Organization of Resource Councils et al. v. U.S. Bureau of Land Management et al.

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Credit: BLM

Bureau of Land Management (BLM) field offices in Buffalo, Wyoming, and Miles City, Montana, manage federal coal in the Powder River Basin, which contains more than 80 percent of all federal coal reserves. In September 2015, the BLM approved resource management plans for these offices, making available 80 billion tons of federal coal for leasing and opening up for oil and gas development more than eight million acres on which the agency estimates 20,000 new wells will be drilled. In doing this, the BLM refused to consider any alternatives that reduce the amount of coal available for leasing or require cost-effective measures to reduce methane emissions. The agency also refused to evaluate the inevitable effects of greenhouse gas emissions from the production and combustion of the vast amounts of fossil fuels that the plans made available for development. In doing so, the BLM failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires the agency to objectively evaluate all reasonable alternatives to the proposed action and take a hard look at the environmental impacts resulting from its actions. So in March 2016, NRDC and our partners filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Montana to stop the BLM from approving fossil fuel leasing and development in the planning areas until it complied with the law.

In March, 2018, in a win for public lands and climate, a district court judge in Montana agreed with NRDC and its partners that the BLM’s decisions were unlawful. The agency failed to consider future needs of the American people, as required in all decisions regarding public lands. The judge ruled that the BLM violated NEPA by refusing to consider alternatives—including the option of not burning absolutely all the available coal in the area. And the agency failed to consider the best available science on methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas.

In August 2018, the court entered a judgment requiring the BLM to complete new coal screening and remedial environmental analyses under NEPA. The court also ordered that any new or pending leases of coal, oil, or gas resources in the planning areas must undergo comprehensive environmental analyses in compliance with NEPA and the court order.

Unfortunately, the BLM has put forward more insufficient analyses to justify its decision to make public lands available for coal, oil, and gas leasing and development in the Powder River Basin. In October 2020, however, a Montana federal court set aside the Miles City Resource Management Plan Amendment as a result of a separate lawsuit filed by the Montana governor. Learn more about the Buffalo Resource Management Plan from the Powder River Basin Resource Council.

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