Federal Appeals Court Kills Obama-Era Ruling

By Victor Winston, updated on February 24, 2024

The landscape of America's energy policy witnessed a significant shift this week. A crucial ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit has nullified a previous court decision that had reinstated an Obama-era freeze on new coal leases on federal lands.

In a noteworthy development on Wednesday, a federal appeals panel vacated an earlier ruling made by Judge Brian Morris of the U.S. District of Montana. His August 2022 decision brought back the 2016 coal leasing moratorium enacted during the Obama administration. This recent overturn is considered a substantial win for the coal industry and several states championing the appeal, marking the end of the moratorium.

The decision stemmed from a concise six-page ruling delivered by a three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, Fox News reported.

An Unexpected Victory for Coal Developers

The National Mining Association (NMA), alongside the States of Montana and Wyoming, led the charge against the reinstatement of the moratorium, arguing for the importance of coal in America's energy landscape. Their efforts culminated in a victory that Rich Nolan, President and CEO of NMA, lauded, emphasizing the ruling's acknowledgment of the need to dismiss what he termed an "irreparably flawed ruling."

"This is a victory for American-mined energy, and we are pleased with the court’s recognition of the need to dismiss this irreparably flawed ruling," Nolan stated, reflecting on the panel's decision. He further highlighted the impact of this ruling on the nation, noting, "With this ruling, important projects can once again advance and support the production of affordable, reliable power to the grid, while creating jobs and economic development across the country."

The original moratorium, put in place by the Department of the Interior under Secretary Sally Jewell in 2016, was a contentious move, aiming to halt new coal leases on federal land. It was swiftly rescinded in 2017 by then-Secretary Ryan Zinke, igniting a series of legal and policy reversals that have since characterized the federal coal leasing program.

Legal and Environmental Implications Loom

The vacated ruling by the appeals panel underscored a moot point argument raised by James Auslander, attorney for NMA, during the February 6 oral arguments before the Ninth Circuit. He pointed out that the Biden administration had already invalidated the need for the court's intervention by revoking previous secretarial actions related to the coal leasing moratorium, thus rendering the case moot.

The appeals panel agreed with the arguments presented by Auslander, stating, "The Zinke order and its [environmental] analysis present no case or controversy and are moot because current Interior Secretary Deb Haaland vacated them long before the district court purported to do so a second time and plaintiffs have not challenged that Haaland order."

Environmental advocacy groups, dismayed by the court's ruling, stressed the adverse implications for climate policy and renewable energy transition. Taylor McKinnon, of the Center for Biological Diversity, sharply criticized the decision, arguing it undermines efforts to combat climate change and transition to clean energy sources.


"This decision could throw the doors open to coal leasing on federal lands at the very same time that we need to be rapidly transitioning to clean energy," McKinnon articulated, calling on the Interior Department to end the federal coal program decisively.

The recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit marks a pivotal moment in the ongoing debate over federal coal leasing and America's energy future.

While it stands as a victory for the coal industry and states that championed the appeal, it also brings to the forefront the complex tug-of-war between fossil fuel development, environmental preservation, and the transition towards renewable energy sources. The ruling underscores the challenges that lie ahead in balancing economic, environmental, and energy needs as the nation moves forward.

About Victor Winston

Victor is a freelance writer and researcher who focuses on national politics, geopolitics, and economics.

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