The Montana mine that produces 240 million tons of greenhouse gases, cocaine trafficking, and money laundering


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Montana mine

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled (pdf) that the Trump Interior Department downplayed the climate change effects from burning coal in order to approve a large expansion of an underground Montana coal mine.

The decision, written by an Obama appointee and Clinton appointee, faulted the federal government for comparing emissions from the mine against total global emissions. “[C]omparing the emissions from this point source against total global emissions,” the panel wrote, “predestined that the emissions would appear relatively minor, even though, for each year of its operation, the coal from this project is expected to generate more [greenhouse gas] emissions than the single largest source of [greenhouse gas] emissions in the United States.”

“This really showed there’s a significant problem in the agency’s analysis of greenhouse gas emissions,” said [attorney Shiloh] Hernadez. “If you compare everything to global totals, it means that nothing an agency ever does will be significant. Which means they will have no impetus to change what they’re doing.”

The mine, owned by Signal Peak Energy, would produce 240 million tons of greenhouse gases under the previously approved expansion.

Signal Peak’s Bull Mountain mine, about 30 miles north of Billings, Montana, is the country’s 20th most productive mine when measured by tons of coal produced, and the only underground mine in the state. Signal Peak was allowed to expand in 2018, adding more than 7,000 acres of land to its operations, comprising a checkerboard of federal, state and privately owned land containing 176 million tons of coal.

The majority remanded the case, sending it back to the lower court to either order the mine shut down or require the government to conduct a new environmental review.

Circuit Judge Ryan Nelson, a Donald Trump appointee, dissented from the decision, writing that courts “are ill-equipped to step into highly politicized scientific debates like this.”

Note: Signal Peak was issued a $1 million fine for health and safety violations and improperly disposing of toxic mining waste just a few months ago.

“Signal Peak’s conduct showed a blatant and callous disregard for its own workers’ health and safety and for protecting the environment. Companies that habitually and willfully violate regulations will be investigated and prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” Acting U.S. Attorney Johnson said.

The company’s former vice president of surface operations was sentenced to prison for fraud. Its former vice president of underground operations was indicted for cocaine trafficking and false statements in mine records. Associates of the former officials were likewise convicted of bank fraud, money laundering, tax evasion, drug trafficking, and illegal possession of firearms.

Restoring pre-Trump rules

The Biden administration moved to restore key provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act on Tuesday, reversing a Trump-era slashing of environmental regulations.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires federal agencies to assess the environmental effects of their proposed actions prior to making decisions. However, in 2020, Trump exempted infrastructure projects from the Act’s purview, claiming that environmental reviews stifle big construction projects. “Together we’re reclaiming America’s proud heritage as a nation of builders and a nation that can get things done,” Trump said.

By reinstating the prior NEPA rules, the federal agencies will need to take into account environmental harm and community welfare before building highways, pipelines, and oil wells.

Under the rule finalized by the Biden White House this week, regulators will now have to account for how government actions may increase greenhouse gas emissions and fragment wildlife habitat, and whether they will impose new burdens on communities, particularly poor and minority neighborhoods, that have already faced disproportionate amounts of pollution.

Business groups, fossil fuel companies, and Republican lawmakers decried the move, saying it will raise costs and slow construction:

“At a time when we should be coalescing around bipartisan ways to lower gas prices, tame skyrocketing inflation and fix the supply chain crisis, President Biden is unfortunately reinstating archaic NEPA regulations that will only result in delays and red tape and feed activist litigation,″ [Arkansas Rep. Bruce Westerman, the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee] said.

NEPA will likely take a more central role in regulating environmental harm after the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to reinstate a Trump-era rule that limits the ability of states and Native American tribes to block pipelines and other energy projects that can pollute waterways.

New York clean energy

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) announced this week that the state approved contracts for clean energy projects that will reduce New York City’s reliance on fossil fuels by more than 50 percent in 2030.

The Clean Path NY project “consists of a 175-mile transmission line connecting 3,800 MW of new solar and wind power in the state and the New York Power Authority’s existing 1,160 MW Blenheim-Gilboa Pumped Storage Power Plant.”

Separately, the Champlain Hudson Power Express project will connect New York State to Hydro-Québec, a Canadian electric company that generates close to 100 percent of its energy from renewable resources. Indigenous communities are concerned, though, about the impact of dams on the environment and about their ancestral rights to land on which Hydro-Québec operates.

“Virtually every mega dam in what’s currently known as Canada is within 100 kilometers of an Indigenous community,” said Amy Norman, an Inuk Labrador Land Protector in a meeting protesting the project before the vote. “So no matter where this hydropower is coming from, it is disproportionately impacting Indigenous people, it’s harming our ways of life, it’s harming our cultures.”

Further reading: “Environmental Impacts of Hydroelectric Power,” Union of Concerned Scientist. “For the first time, wind power eclipsed both coal and nuclear in the U.S.,” NPR.