Montana Supreme Court Upholds Land Board Decision to Lease Otter Creek Coal in 2010
The Montana Supreme Court today upheld the State Land Board’s 2010 decision to issue leases for state lands located in the Otter Creek drainage to Ark Land Co., a subsidiary of Arch Coal, Inc.
“As a member of the most productive Land Board in history, I have consistently advocated for responsible development of our natural resources,” Attorney General and Land Board member Steve Bullock said. “This decision preserves income for the school trust and paves the way for responsible oil, gas and coal development in Montana.”
A number of groups, including the Northern Plains Resource Council, the National Wildlife Federation, the Montana Environmental Information Center and the Sierra Club, had filed the appeal with the state’s highest court, contending that the Land Board should have first conducted an environmental review under the Montana Environmental Policy Act. These groups contended that the leases were unconstitutional because they violated the Montana Constitution’s guarantee of a right to a clean and healthful environment.
However, in an opinion written by Chief Justice Mike McGrath, Montana’s Supreme Court unanimously upheld a prior district court decision that the law exempting the Land Board from requiring an environmental review at the time a lease was approved, was constitutional, provided the lease was subject to permitting requirements later in the process.
“Because the leases themselves do not allow for any degradation of the environment, conferring only the exclusive right to apply for State permits, and because they specifically require full environmental review and full compliance with applicable State environmental laws, the act of issuing the leases did not impact or implicate the right to a clean and healthful environment in Article II, Section 3 of the Montana Constitution,” McGrath wrote.
The court concluded that the leases granted by the Land Board simply gave the prospective operator “the opportunity to begin to prepare a complete application for a mining permit” and that any necessary environmental review and protections could be put into place at a later permitting stage, “all before any prospecting or actual development begins.”