This is a largely overlooked but very consequential ruling:

Citing agencies’ neglect to consider climate change impacts, a federal court ruling today rejected federal agencies’ approval of Arch Coal’s plans to bulldoze roads through 1,700 acres of the pristine Sunset Roadless Area in Western Colorado and halted any road construction in the area.

U.S. District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson issued a 36-page ruling holding that each of the three decisions by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that ultimately approved the proposed bulldozing violated the federal law requiring that agencies take a “hard look” at environmental impacts. The court’s decision halts for now Arch Coal’s plan to begin exploring for coal, which involves building 6 miles of road and scraping 10 drilling pads in the heart of the roadless area. Arch hoped to begin drilling as early as next week. A copy of the ruling is available.

Before this ruling, there was not a strict precedent for the necessity of adding climate impacts to the more local environmental impact studies necessary before beginning a large-scale project like starting a mine.

That’s a huge first step. How regulatory agencies deal with what constitutes too great a risk to the climate is a large open question, but without enforcing the protocol that climate assessments be done in the first place, that question is moot. That a federal court has decided that climate impacts cannot be ignored is a big step forward. The courts clearly believe that carbon emissions must be considered a hazard.

Enough of a hazard to stop the creation of a new coal mine? If the vast majority of climate scientists are to be believed, that one is a no brainer: in order to prevent a runaway climate catastrophe, 2/3 of existing fossil fuel resources will have to remain safely in the ground. Opening up some of the dirtiest fossil fuels around to further exploitation would be a terrible idea.

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Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.