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Supreme Court deals final blow to Wyoming coal port suit

Supreme Court deals final blow to Wyoming coal port suit

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A coal train approaches the Black Thunder mine outside Wright on March 29, 2018. 

The Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear Wyoming’s lawsuit against the state of Washington over a blocked coal export terminal, likely ending the Equality State’s attempt to force Washington to approve the project.

Though the court’s rejection has been anticipated since acting U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar asked it not to take up the case last month, lawmakers and industry representatives are frustrated by the decision.

“What you have is coastal states blocking commerce for interior states,” said Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association. “That’s really what this is about. And the fact that the court decided to take a pass on the case, it’s just very disappointing.”

The dispute over the proposed Millennium Bulk Terminal began in 2017, when Washington State denied water quality permits, citing environmental concerns. It was the last of seven proposed coal export projects in the region, all of which failed amid widespread local opposition.

Lawmakers in Wyoming and Montana — the other plaintiff in the case — pushed back against Washington’s refusal, arguing that the port was necessary to transport coal from the Powder River Basin to international markets.

“The fact of the matter is, it’s a political issue that we can’t get it out of the country,” Deti said. “The markets are there and the customers are there. We just can’t do business with them.”

But opponents of the lawsuit, including the solicitor general, say that argument was nullified when the terminal’s developer, Lighthouse Resources, declared bankruptcy in December. Even if the Supreme Court sided with Wyoming and Montana and forced Washington to approve the permits, the port wouldn’t be built, because its developer no longer exists.

“It is symbolic of the end of an era,” said Jan Hasselman, a senior attorney with Earthjustice, “and that era was a 10-year attempt to rescue a dying industry by building an export market. There were a lot of reasons why that effort was doomed to fail. And the Supreme Court’s decision, I think, represents a symbolic final nail in the coffin on that effort. Like it was over before today, but now it’s really over.”

Before it went bankrupt, Lighthouse Resources sued the state of Washington over several rejected permits. Those lawsuits were either won by the state or dismissed when Lighthouse went under.

Shortly after the bankruptcy announcement, Wyoming and Montana requested a hearing from the Supreme Court, arguing that Washington state was violating their rights to conduct interstate commerce.

The plaintiffs had hoped the Supreme Court would be more willing to hear their suit under the previous administration, but former President Donald Trump’s solicitor general never weighed in on the case. Prelogar’s was the only brief the court received from a solicitor general — an influential opinion as it considers whether to take up lawsuits.

Despite this loss, it’s likely that Wyoming will pursue similar cases in the future, said Randall Luthi, Gov. Mark Gordon’s chief energy advisor.

“We felt it was a much bigger item than just being one company and one permit,” Luthi said. “We really do see this as a constitutional issue of an inland state being able to export their products. The Supreme Court, however, I think looked at it very narrowly.”


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