A large Montana coal mine averted dozens of layoffs on Tuesday after a judge allowed work to proceed on an expansion, even as the government reconsiders the mine's contribution to climate change.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy allows Signal Peak Energy to remove up to 170,000 tons of coal from federal leases adjacent to its Bull Mountain Mine north of Billings.
Attorneys for the Trump administration had joined Signal Peak in asking Molloy for a reprieve from an earlier ruling that had blocked the expansion. The company remains barred from selling or shipping fuel from the disputed area, pending a new environmental study by federal officials.
Environmentalists who sued over the project said Tuesday's ruling effectively renders the pending study meaningless.
Signal Peak executives had said 30 workers would be laid off by the end of October and up to 150 more in coming months as they ran out of work on existing leases. The expansion ultimately would give the company access to an estimated 176 million tons of coal that would take more than a decade to mine.
"We're extremely pleased with the decision and also for our employees," said Signal Peak spokesman Mike Dawson. "We will not have to lay people off."
Molloy in August said the Interior Department had understated the climate change impacts of burning fuel from Bull Mountain and overstated its economic benefits.
Bull Mountain is one of the largest underground mines in the U.S. and ships about 95 percent of its coal to Asia.
The Interior Department in 2015 determined that the expansion would not have a significant impact on the human environment. The agency said Bull Mountain's customers would simply go somewhere else if the expansion were not approved, meaning there would be no reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from burning the fuel.
That drew a lawsuit from the Western Environmental Law Center on behalf of the Montana Environmental Information Center and other groups. The environmentalists said the government had not looked closely enough at the effects of the expansion on waterways, air pollution and the health of people who live along the coal's shipping routes.
The new environmental study of the mine already is underway, with public comments due by Nov. 20.
President Donald Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have been outspoken in their support of U.S. coal mining — despite growing competition from natural gas and renewable fuels that's eroded market demand for coal.
Anne Hedges with the Montana Environmental Information Center expressed doubt that the administration would come down against the expansion given that mining in the area already will have started.
"They pull it out of the ground, they stockpile it and then they get to burn it down the road as soon as they get a pro forma analysis done by an agency that's already shown its willingness to bend over backward for them," she said. "The analysis is meaningless."
Signal Peak is jointly owned by Ohio-based utility FirstEnergy, Boiche Group and Gunvor Group, an international commodities trading firm.