The Spring Creek coal mining complex near Decker, photographed in 2010. Credit: Chris Boyer. May not be republished without permission. / Kestrel Aerial Services

A federal judge in Billings on Wednesday blocked a proposed expansion of Montana’s largest coal mine, the Spring Creek mine near Decker, ruling that the federal government failed to properly consider the harm that pollution from the mine could cause.

The federal Office of Surface Mining failed to account for the future costs of greenhouse gas emissions from coal mined at Spring Creek, as well as the costs of non-greenhouse gas air pollutants like mercury and the impact of transporting coal, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Watters ruled. 

The 117-million-ton expansion was approved by the Obama administration and would have extended the operating life of the mine, which was purchased in 2019 by the Navajo Transitional Energy Company, for six and a half years at the current rate of extraction. However, in recent years, the mine has faced significant challenges, including the bankruptcy of former owner Cloud Peak Energy and a four-month furlough of workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The mine employs more than 250 workers.

The challenges aren’t expected to improve any time soon. In a report earlier this week, investment bank Morgan Stanley projected that electricity from coal generation in the U.S. will reach 0% by 2033. Since 2010, electricity generated from coal generation has fallen from 46% to 20%.

Montana is the sixth-largest coal producing state in the country, and has more recoverable reserves than any other state, according to the Energy Information Administration. The state is also expected to be heavily impacted by climate change, with an increase in wildfires and decreasing snowpack and water levels.

The Navajo Transitional Energy Company provided the following statement: “The Montana District Court’s ruling yesterday does not change operations at the Spring Creek mine, thus preserving critical jobs in the region. The court affirmed that the lease is valid and rejected the [plaintiffs’] claims otherwise.  The court has asked OSM to review specific criteria related to the mining plan.  NTEC believes that OSM has already adequately met NEPA obligations and is considering further legal options.  NTEC will continue to work to protect Montana’s jobs, critical natural resources industry, and environment.”

A U.S. Department of Interior spokesman declined to comment on the court ruling.

Now, the Office of Surface Mining must go back to the drawing board and come up with a new environmental assessment within 240 days, or conduct a more comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement. 

The ruling is considered especially significant in light of recent actions by the Biden administration, said Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Program Director for WildEarth Guardians, which along with the Montana Environmental Information Center filed the lawsuit challenging the expansion. As a part of its wide-ranging climate agenda, the Biden administration has also announced a review of the federal coal leasing program

That program has long “buried its head in the sand,” extolling the benefits of new coal mines without properly examining the harms, said Shiloh Hernandez, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, which represented WildEarth Guardians and MEIC in the case.

“These errors are not unique to the Spring Creek mine,” Hernandez said. The groups have also challenged an expansion of the Rosebud mine near Colstrip.

One of the main issues highlighted by Judge Watters is the federal government’s failure to consider how much the emissions from burning fossil fuels will cost in terms of a warming climate. There are tools to calculate that cost, known as the “social cost of carbon,” but the federal government has not embraced them, Watters said.

Nichols said that if the Biden administration properly factors those costs, it will deny the permit.

“The company doesn’t have a right to that coal. The Interior Department has to determine whether mining that coal is in the public interest,” Nichols said. “[If that coal is mined], the American public loses a lot more than it gains.”

The Biden administration has announced an ambitious agenda to help the country adapt to and mitigate a warming climate. In a matter of weeks, the administration has ended new oil and gas leasing on public land and stopped the Keystone XL pipeline

The moves are a sharp reversal of Trump administration policies. As a part of its so-called Energy Dominance agenda, the Interior Department under Trump ended an Obama-era moratorium on coal leasing and opened wide swaths of public land to new drilling and mining. 

Still, very little new coal was leased because it is no longer competitive, said Derf Johnson, clean water program director at MEIC. With market trends pointing toward a warming climate and diminished use of coal, the federal government should look at managing the decline and reclamation of coal mines, he said. That includes thinking about equitable transition strategies for fossil fuel workers entering a clean energy economy.

“Why are we even talking about expanding even more?” Johnson said. “We’re at the end of the life cycle with coal, and now we need to talk about what’s next.”

This story was updated Feb. 4 to include comment from the Navajo Transitional Energy Company.

latest stories

The problem of the urban bear

Food-conditioned bears and an expanding human footprint in Missoula, Flathead and Gallatin valleys are creating problems for both species. Bear managers are on the hunt for solutions.

Montana coronavirus report

The latest news and information on the coronavirus pandemic in Montana, including updated case count maps and original in-depth reporting.

Johnathan Hettinger

Johnathan Hettinger is a journalist based in Livingston. Originally from Central Illinois and a graduate of the University of Illinois, he has worked at the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, the Livingston Enterprise and the (Champaign-Urbana) News-Gazette. Contact Johnathan at jhett93@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter.