BILLINGS, MT — A federal judge has blocked a proposed 176-million ton (159 million-metric ton) expansion of a central Montana coal mine in a ruling that criticized U.S. officials for downplaying the climate change impacts of the project and inflating its economic benefits.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy issued an order Monday barring Signal Peak Energy from mining in the 11-square mile (28-square kilometer) expansion area at the Bull Mountain coal mine pending a new round of environmental studies.
Molloy says the Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining must consider the environmental effects of shipping the fuel to customers in Asia and from the greenhouse gases and other pollutants emitted when the fuel is burned to generate electricity.
Courts in Colorado and Montana previously have issued similar rulings about greenhouse gas emissions from mine expansions. In those cases, the expansions ultimately were allowed to proceed following further environmental reviews.
Molloy's ruling stems from a 2015 lawsuit filed by the Montana Environmental Information Center, Sierra Club and Montana Elders for a Livable Tomorrow. The groups argued that the government did not look 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.
A Signal Peak spokesman said Tuesday that the company was reviewing the ruling, which was not expected to immediately affect operations.
Federal mining officials said the proposed expansion would contribute almost $24 million annually in tax revenues.
They also said there would be no additional environmental impacts from burning more coal from Bull Mountain because its customers would simply go somewhere else if the expansion were not approved.
But Molloy rejected the claim.
"This conclusion is illogical, and places the (Interior Department's) thumb on the scale by inflating the benefits of the action while minimizing its impacts," the judge wrote.
A representative of one of the plaintiffs in the case, the Montana Environmental Information Center, said Molloy's ruling underscores the need to address the "real costs that are hidden in the fossil fuel world."
"It doesn't help (mine) workers to ignore the inevitable — that coal is on a downward slide whether it's in this country or overseas," said the group's deputy director, Anne Hedges.
Bull Mountain, located near Roundup, is a major employer in central Montana with more than 250 workers at the underground mine and a coal preparation plant on the site. As much as 95 percent of its coal has been exported in past years, to South Korea, Japan and the Netherlands, according to court volumes.
The mine's production volumes dropped sharply in recent years as overseas coal markets have been in decline. Signal Peak extracted 5.6 million tons of coal last year, down by 35 percent since peaking at 8.7 million tons in 2013, according to company filings with the U.S. Mine Health and Safety Administration.
Under the proposed expansion, the company anticipated mining up to 12 million tons annually.
Office of Surface Mining spokesman Chris Holmes referred questions on the ruling to the Department of Justice, where a spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.