Climate change is not mentioned in a federal magistrate's 26-page decision calling for a more complete environmental analysis of Spring Creek Mine's 2,042-acre expansion. Instead, U.S. Magistrate Judge Carolyn Ostby found federal officials failed to complete several routine permitting steps, like notifying the public, when they approved the Cloud Peak Energy-owned mine's expansion plans in 2012.
The decision, announced Monday, makes Ostby's ruling more narrow than the earlier victory won by WildEarth Guardians, the New Mexico-based environmental group that brought the case against Spring Creek. In that earlier instance, a federal judge in Denver found Interior officials should have considered the impact on climate of approving a Colorado mine's 6,000-acre expansion.
The Spring Creek ruling is nonetheless notable, legal observers said. Environmentalists, they noted, are finding increasing success at forcing the government to change its approach to coal leases.
"The courts are taking a skeptical eye of how the agencies are handling coal mining authorizations and expansions," said Justin Pidot, an associate professor of law at the University of Denver.
The Spring Creek ruling should serve as a warning to coal companies and the government that "they need to be dotting there I’s and crossing their T's when they’re approving this type of project," he added.
WildEarth Guardians has waged an aggressive legal campaign against the federal coal program in recent years. The group has six cases pending in which it has challenged leases granted to 10 coal mines in five Western states.
Not all have been successful. A federal judge in Wyoming rejected the group's claim the government had not completed a sufficient environmental review of four lease modifications in the Powder River Basin. WildEarth Guardians is appealing the ruling to the 10th U.S. Circuit of Appeals.
The group's chief concern is climate change. Roughly 40 percent of American coal production is mined on federal land. WildEarth Guardians estimates federally mined coal accounts for more than 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
The group's ultimate goal is the end to coal mining on federal land, though organizers concede such a moratorium is still years away. The immediate aim is to force Interior to acknowledge the climate cost of burning federally mined coal, said Jeremy Nichols, the group's climate and energy program director.
"We’re not going to back down from need to curtail carbon dioxide," Nichols said. Noting the upcoming climate talks in Paris, he added, "The last thing the Obama administration needs is to show up and have a credibility problem because it has an Interior Department that has never seen a coal mine it didn’t like."
Such positions have earned WildEarth Guardians a good deal of scorn from industry supporters. A Denver Post columnist lambasted Nichols, saying he appeared to be auditioning for the role of "official stand-up comic of green activism" after claiming a WildEarth Guardians lawsuit challenging a Colorado mine's permit was not aimed at shuttering the facility.
Nichols, for his part, contends the government should be offering more support to Western coal communities, preparing them for the day when mines are closed.
Rick Curtsinger, a Cloud Peak spokesman, did not mention WildEarth Guardians in a statement about the Spring Creek ruling. He instead touted the mine's economic credentials, saying it plays an important role in supplying energy to the American economy, providing good paying jobs and generating tax revenues for state and local governments.
"We are disappointed in today's magistrate judge recommendation and will work with (the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement) to defend their prior robust environmental review process as the case moves ahead," Curtsinger said.
The National Mining Association and the Wyoming Mining Association did not return requests for comment.
Coal leasing was a subject that once attracted little public scrutiny, said Mark Squillace, a law professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. Lawsuits like the Spring Creek case have brought it into the public eye, he said, highlighting some of the coal program's deficiencies.
"It is a pattern in terms of the way these groups are starting to pay close attention to everything the government does, from leasing, to mining to combustion," Squillace said. "The government knows this, or should know this."
Otsby found federal officials never notified the public regarding the expansion application for Spring Creek, a southern Montana mine that employs many workers from Sheridan. The government contended it placed the documents in a reading room in a Denver high-rise, but later admitted it could not prove the documents had been placed there.
Interior also did not provide justification for its finding that the mine's expansion would have little effect on the environment. Instead, it merely referenced a 2006 environmental analysis. The magistrate gave Cloud Peak 180 days to complete a more thorough review. Whether that analysis will include climate change remains to be seen.
An Interior Department spokesman declined comment, saying the government is reviewing the decision.