A federal judge in Montana has given the Trump administration until late 2019 to analyze reductions to mining in the nation's most productive coal fields as a way to fight climate change.
The order from U.S. District Judge Brian Morris, issued Tuesday, applies to the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming. The region supplies about 40 percent of the nation's coal, much of it from massive strip mines on public lands.
The case involves a challenge by environmentalists of U.S. Bureau of Land Management plans issued in 2015 to lease more than 10 billion tons of coal in the region. The plans also guide the leasing of oil and gas.
Morris turned down a request from environmentalists to halt new energy lease sales until the climate change review is completed. However, each individual lease issued will have to go through a review similar to the one Morris required for the region as a whole.
Bob LeResche with the Western Organization of Resource Councils said the climate change reviews "should have been done a long time ago."
"Hopefully these considerations will lead to some adjustments" in how coal, oil and gas are leased, said LeResche, who lives in Clearmont, Wyoming. "Putting 10 billion tons of coal on the market right now, that makes no sense at all."
Representatives of the Wyoming Mining Association and Montana Coal Council did not immediately respond to telephone messages seeking comment.
Government officials had argued unsuccessfully that climate change could be addressed at individual mines rather than across the region.
Bureau of Land Management spokesman Al Nash said the agency was reviewing Morris' order. Leases of oil and gas in the region, though not as economically significant as coal, were put on hold in April after a preliminary ruling in the case.
The delay affects 223 parcels comprising more than 160 square miles (414 square kilometers) of public and private lands in eastern Montana.
Coal mined from the Powder River Basin and burned in power plants is responsible for 13 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Coal lease sales in the region slowed considerably over the past decade as demand for the fuel declined.
Since his election with a strongly pro-fossil fuels agenda, President Donald Trump has sought to boost the industry. That's included lifting a moratorium on new lease sales from public lands imposed during the Obama administration over concerns about climate change.
A ruling in September by the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver cast doubt on a longstanding U.S. government argument that blocking leasing of federal coal reserves wouldn't affect climate change because the coal could simply be mined elsewhere.