Nearly a decade ago, the Dakota Minnesota & Eastern Railroad Corp. (DM&E) tried to build and upgrade a rail line between Wyoming and Minnesota. While I’m usually a big fan of trains, the problem with this project wasn’t the train itself, but what the train would be carrying. By design, it would carry 100 million tons of coal annually from Wyoming’s Powder River Coal Basin to the Midwest, enough to power about 50 average sized coal plants. The rail line was a key part of the infamous Bush-Cheney energy plan to increase coal production and utilization. When burned in coal plants, the coal carried by this rail line would have emitted approximately 200 million tons of carbon dioxide, along with mercury and numerous other air pollutants.
In one of my first energy cases with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, we challenged the project on behalf of Minnesotans for an Energy-Efficient Economy (now Fresh Energy) and the Sierra Club. The federal Surface Transportation Board, when it approved the new rail line, performed an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The government’s EIS considered the many direct impacts of the rail line (noise, vibration, train engine emissions). However, it completely ignored the likely environmental impacts of burning the coal that the rail line was intended to carry, most notably carbon dioxide and mercury emissions. Our legal challenge thus became one of the first cases to raise the issue of indirect greenhouse gas emissions from federally approved and funded projects.
The court agreed with our arguments, and in Mid States Coalition for Progress v. Surface Transportation Board, 345 F.3d 520 (8th Cir. 2003), the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the government’s decision pending further environmental review. The case became a landmark decision requiring federal agencies to account for the indirect greenhouse gas pollution from major projects.
The federal government later issued a supplemental EIS, which was ultimately approved by the court in December 2006. But by this time, the tide was beginning to turn on coal plants. Demand for coal began dropping, as old coal plants were being phased out by environmental enforcement and new proposed coal plants were being stopped in a highly-effective national legal campaign. Last week, citing the lack of a “favorable regulatory climate” and a lack of financing, the company finally nixed the project. While the original case set an important legal precedent in the fight against climate change, this victory and the end of the project has real tangible benefits for climate protection. Without the new rail line, the coal (and carbon) will stay in the ground, significantly reducing our greenhouse gas emissions every year.