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Montana tribe rips Trump administration over federal coal leasing

Valerie Volcovici

WASHINGTON, May 29 (Reuters) - A Montana tribe this week blasted the Trump administration for seeking to overturn an Obama-era moratorium on federal coal leasing without consulting it, saying the move violated its treaty rights and would have major impacts on its land.

The criticism from Northern Cheyenne President Rynalea Whiteman Pena, in a letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt on May 28, reflects ongoing tensions between Native American tribes and the Trump administration over its energy policy that first erupted over a North Dakota pipeline project in 2017.

Pena's letter came in reaction to a draft environmental assessment by the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management last Wednesday that concluded that restarting federal coal leasing would have no environmental impact, and that it was not necessary to consult tribes before doing so.

"Your department's statement in the environmental assessment that no consultation is necessary with affected Indian tribes violates your sacred trust obligation to the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and other Tribes, undermines the formation of sound public policy and constitutes a shortsighted and unwise approach to land management," Pena wrote.

The BLM was required to do the assessment after a federal court ruled that the Interior Department's 2017 decision to restart federal coal leasing was illegal without an analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

The Northern Cheyenne, as well as a group of conservation groups, have also asked BLM to extend the comment period on the assessment from a "plainly inadequate" 15 days to 90 days.

The fast timeline for the comment period "deprives the public of a meaningful opportunity to weigh in on decisions that have lasting impacts on the human environment... and violates the requirements of NEPA," the groups, led by Earthjustice, wrote in a separate letter to Bernhardt on Wednesday.

Former President Barack Obama had imposed the coal moratorium pending a government study on the impacts of coal mining on public land, cheering environmentalists but upsetting parts of the coal industry.

Approximately 426 million tons of federal coal are located near the Northern Cheyenne Reservation at the Decker and Spring Creek mines in Montana. But Pena said in the letter that the tribe would not reap the economic benefits of mining.

The Northern Cheyenne tribe has been critical of the Trump administration's commitment to government-to-government tribal consultations since it took office, and sued the Interior Department over the issue in 2017.

Last month, the Government Accountability Office released a report that found that federal agencies were not adequately considering tribal input. (Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Dan Grebler)