As part of the President Trump's efforts to "unleash American energy dominance" and foster domestic fossil fuel production, on March 28th 2017, then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke issued a Secretarial Order purporting to overturn an Obama-era moratorium on coal leasing on federal lands. As commanded by an Executive Order issued the day before, the Secretarial Order lifted the moratorium and directed the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to "process coal lease applications and modifications expeditiously in accordance with regulations and guidance existing before" the Obama-era moratorium. The moratorium had been imposed in early 2016 to enable a comprehensive programmatic review of the federal coal leasing program, which was to examine the environmental impacts of federal coal production, including its effects on climate change.
Zinke's action was immediately challenged in court by seven environmental groups and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, who argued that lifting the moratorium constituted a major federal action for the purposes of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), and therefore required a full environmental impact statement (EIS). The plaintiffs also argued that, by lifting the moratorium without any reasoned explanation, the Department of Interior violated the Administrative Procedure Act, Mineral Leasing Act, and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.
On April 19, 2019, a federal judge in Montana sided with the plaintiffs, concluding that the Zinke Secretarial Order constituted a major federal action sufficient to trigger NEPA. The court ordered Interior to comply with NEPA's requirements, and either perform an EIS, or make a finding of no significant impact (FONSI) and perform an environmental assessment (EA).
Although the NEPA process generally takes years, the Department of the Interior apparently was able to conduct a NEPA review in just one month. On May 22, 2019, Interior issued an environmental assessment rather than a full EIS, concluding that lifting the moratorium would have no significant impact on the environment. It reasoned that lifting the moratorium instead of allowing it to continue until March 2019 (when the programmatic review for which the moratorium was imposed was scheduled to end) would have no significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions because it would merely delay emissions by 24 months. Further, Interior declined to quantify--and therefore did not count as signficiant--the social costs of carbon emitted by coal to be mined once the moratorium is lifted, because, among other reasons, President Trump "withdrew the Technical Support Documents upon which the [social cost of carbon] protocol was based and disbanded the earlier Ineragency Working Group on Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases."
The Department of the Interior and BLM accepted comments on the draft EA until June 6, 2019. Once the EA is finalized, it will be subject to potential court challenge.