Environmental groups file lawsuit as Trump trashes pollution protections

 Tammy Webber and Matthew Brown, AP writers

Environmental groups are making good on their vow to fight Donald Trump’s intent to dispose of rules that protect U.S. citizens from pollution and curb global warming.

On March 29, they teamed up with an American Indian tribe to ask a federal court to block an order that lifts restrictions on coal sales from federal lands.

The Interior Department last year placed a moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands to review the climate change impacts of burning the fuel and whether taxpayers were getting a fair return. But Trump on March 28 signed a sweeping executive order that included lifting the moratorium, and also initiated a review of former President Barack Obama’s signature plan to restrict greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Environmentalists say lifting the moratorium will worsen climate change and allow coal to be sold for unfairly low prices. It will also prove deadly for more coal workers.

“It’s really just a hail Mary to a dying industry,” said Jenny Harbine, an Earthjustice attorney who filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Montana on behalf of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Sierra Club, and Center for Biological Diversity.

The White House did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the lawsuit. The Department of Justice declined comment.

Environmental groups have been preparing for months to fight the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks, including by hiring more lawyers and raising money. Trump, who has called global warming a “hoax” invented by the Chinese, said during his campaign that he would kill Obama’s climate plans and bring back coal jobs.

Advocates said they also will work to mobilize public opposition to the executive order, saying they expect a backlash from Americans who worry about climate change.

“This is not what most people elected Trump to do,” said David Goldston, director of government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Poll after poll shows that the public supports climate action.”

A poll released in September found 71 percent of Americans want the U.S. government to do something about global warming, including 6 percent who think the government should act even though they are not sure that climate change is happening. That poll, which also found most Americans are willing to pay a little more each month to fight global warming, was conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago.

While Republicans have blamed Obama-era environmental regulations for the loss of coal jobs, federal data show that U.S. mines have been losing jobs for decades because of automation and competition from natural gas; solar panels and wind turbines now can produce emissions-free electricity cheaper than burning coal.

But many Trump voters in coal country are counting on Trump’s promise to bring back their jobs in the mines.

Those  jobs, however, in addition to causing pollution, are dangerous and deadly. Reports released last December showed that the prevalence of the deadliest form of black lung disease among U.S. coal miners is more than 10 times what federal regulators have reported. The actual number is likely even higher than that, because some clinics in coal country provided incomplete data and some in the heart of the Appalachian coal mining region did not share any data.

The disease is fatal and incurable.

Doomed to failure

Trump’s order also will initiate a review of efforts to reduce methane emissions in oil and natural gas production, and will rescind Obama-era actions that addressed climate change and national security and efforts to prepare the country for the impacts of climate change. The administration still is deciding whether to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The Trump administration also has asked a federal appeals court to postpone a ruling on lawsuits over the Clean Power Plan, the Obama initiative to limit carbon from power plants, saying it could be changed or rescinded.

A coalition of 16 states and the District of Columbia said they will oppose any effort to withdraw the plan or seek dismissal of a pending legal case, while environmental advocates said they’re also ready to step in to defend environmental laws if the U.S. government under Trump does not.

“The president doesn’t get to simply rewrite safeguards; they have to … prove the changes are in line with the law and science,” said the NRDC’s Goldston. “I think that’s going to be a high hurdle for them.”

Environmentalists say Trump’s actions will put the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage to other countries that are embracing clean energy, which they say could create thousands of new jobs.  Clean energy creates more jobs than the fossil fuel industry.

Environmentalists also warn that efforts to revive coal ultimately will fail, because many states and industries already have been switching to renewable energy or natural gas.

“Those decisions are being made at the state level and plant by plant,” said Earthjustice President Trip Van Noppen, who said his group is “continuing to work aggressively to retire dirty coal plants.”

“Coal is not coming back,” Van Noppen added. “While the president is taking big splashy action, he is actually doomed to fail.”

Brown reported from Billings, Montana. Associated Press writers Michael Biesecker and Sam Hananel in Washington also contributed to this story.