Montana Federal District Court Vacates Bull Mountains Mine Plan; Win for Climate, Public Lands, and Local Ranchers

February 15th, 2023: On Friday, February 10th, the Federal District Court in Montana vacated a federal mine plan that would have allowed Signal Peak Energy to mine 175 million tons of federal coal, leading to more than 240 million tons of climate pollution from mining, shipping, and burning coal from the Bull Mountains underground coal mine in Montana.

The ruling is a win for the climate, public lands advocates, and local ranchers whose land sits above the underground mine. In April 2022, the Ninth Circuit had ruled that the Trump Administration’s Department of the Interior unlawfully “hid the ball” about the climate impacts of the mine expansion, in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  The expansion would have resulted in nearly a quarter billion tons of climate pollution over the next two decades.  On an annual basis, the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from burning coal from the mine would have been greater than the largest single point source of GHG emissions in the U.S. 

Citing impacts from the mine on the surrounding ranching community, which includes damage to wells and aquifers in addition to threats to cattle from subsidence, the District Court found the environmental impacts outweighed any economic disruption to the mine. “[T]he Mine Expansion’s very existence results from invalid NEPA process . . . . NEPA’s main concern is a project’s environmental impact, not the economic impact of putting the project on hold.”

The New York Times recently reported on the corruption and criminal history surrounding Signal Peak Energy. Along with impacts to local ranchers, the story discusses embezzlement, a fake kidnapping, bribery, cocaine trafficking, firearms violations, past links to Vladimir Putin, and worker safety and environmental infringements connected to the mine.

Sierra Club brought the suit with Montana Environmental Information Center, WildEarth Guardians, 350 Montana, Western Environmental Law Center, and Earthjustice. Environmental Law Program senior attorney Nathaniel Shoaff represented the Sierra Club in the case, along with Melissa Hornbein at WELC and Shiloh Hernandez at Earthjustice.