Courts Consider Climate, Carbon Costs

October 6, 2017


When considering the costs and benefits of a fossil fuel project — from building a single pipeline to expanding some of the biggest coal mines in the country — how much consideration should be given to the project’s eventual contribution to climate change-causing carbon emissions?

That’s a question that has plagued regulators, environmental groups, and courts for years. But this summer, in the span of a month, four different decisions came to the same conclusion: when deciding whether or not to allow a fossil fuel project to move forward, you have to take into consideration how the project will impact carbon emissions — even if those emissions would be released far from the boundaries of the project in question.

“At the high level, this wave of court decisions is an indicator that courts are pushing for accountability, and a true accounting of climate and public health costs of these projects,” Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, told ThinkProgress. “That is going to be a big challenge to Trump’s anti-climate science and pro-polluter agenda.”

The wave of decisions began in mid-August, when a U.S. District Judge blocked a proposed expansion of an underground coal mine in Montana, arguing that the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) failed to properly consider how the proposed expansion would impact climate change. Environmental groups argued — and the court agreed — that OSM focused primarily on alleged economic benefits of the expansion, like local taxes, while refusing to use any metric to analyze the harm that the expansion would cause.

The OSM, in effect, put its “thumb on the scale by inflating the benefits of the action while minimizing its impacts,” the court ruled.

Weeks later, the D.C. Circuit Court vacated permits for an entirely different fossil fuel project on similar grounds. It found that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) had failed to adequately consider how construction of the Sable Trail pipeline — which would run from Alabama to Florida — would result in more greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of natural gas. As a result, the court ruled that FERC, which has been notably loathe to consider the climate impacts of various projects, had to redo its assessment.

It was a win for pipeline opponents who have long argued that FERC acts as little more than a rubber stamp for fossil fuel projects. A recent investigation from the Center for Public Integrity lends credence to those claims, finding that the regulatory body has only rejected two pipeline proposals in the last 30 years.



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