Federal judge halts Arch Coal’s exploration of a Colorado coal reserve

A federal court on June 27 put a hold on a federal approval of Arch Coal’s (NYSE: ACI) plans to bulldoze roads through 1,700 acres of the Sunset Roadless Area at its West Elk longwall mine in Colorado and halted any road construction in the area while the case is argued.

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 the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that ultimately approved the bulldozing associated with exploration work 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 had been due to begin on July 1. While the coal involved would be mined through underground means, roads and drill pads need to be bulldozed to get exploration drilling rigs to the sites above that coal.

Earthjustice, on behalf of the High Country Conservation Advocates, WildEarth Guardians, and Sierra Club, had filed this suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado last year to overturn BLM and Forest Service decisions approving this work. The roadless area is in the Gunnison National Forest of western Colorado about 15 miles southeast of Paonia, next to the West Elk Wilderness.

“Today’s court ruling will ensure that Federal agencies take the hard look that the law requires at environmental harms before bulldozing roads throughout the Sunset Roadless Area,” said Alli Melton, Public Lands Director for High Country Conservation Advocates, in a June 27 statement.

The BLM and Forest Service decisions challenged in the lawsuit authorized the leasing of 10.1 million tons of coal under 1,700 acres of the Sunset Roadless Area, which would expand Arch’s West Elk mine reserves. Without the leases, the mine can continue to operate for at least 8-10 more years, Earthjustice noted.

Although the West Elk mine is underground, the coal seams are some of the gassiest in the nation, which requires Arch to drill wells above the coal seams to vent explosive methane gas. The methane gas vented by Arch coal is not only a valuable commodity, it’s also a powerful global warming pollutant, Earthjustice pointed out.

“In this case it is apparent that the plaintiffs will suffer an injury in fact if bulldozing begins in the Sunset Roadless Area, that the injury is traceable to the three interrelated decisions by the agencies to open up the area to coal exploration, and that a favorable decision invalidating any one of the rules would prohibit Arch Coal from moving forward with its exploration plan, thereby redressing plaintiffs’ injury,” the judge wrote in part. “Arch, however, suggests that a proper standing analysis must also trace the concrete injury to the particular legal theory advanced by the plaintiff. In this case, therefore, Arch would like to see plaintiffs demonstrate why the allegedly inadequate analysis of climate change in the [Colorado Roadless Rule] will cause harm to plaintiffs’ recreational interests. Because plaintiffs admittedly cannot draw such a line between the alleged deficiency and the particular harm they face, Arch argues they lack standing to bring such a challenge. This attempt to raise the bar on standing by requiring additional proof beyond injury, causation, and redressability has been rebuffed by other courts including the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Judge Jackson later wrote on the climate change aspect of this case as it concerns how coal produced from the property will be burned in power plants that emit CO2: “[T]he agencies’ contention that new technology might reduce carbon emissions from future coal combustion strikes this Court as anything but a ‘hard look.’ The agency cannot rely on unsupported assumptions that future mitigation technologies will be adopted.”

The judge also wasn’t buying the contention by the agencies that it would be too tough to forecast greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as related to methane from the mining of this coal. “Such projections were possible as demonstrated by an expert opinion that used data from existing North Fork mines to extrapolate expected emissions under the extended mine lives enabled by the CRR,” the judge wrote. “The agencies made similar forecasts based on existing data in earlier litigation surrounding the West Elk Mine, undercutting the argument that such forecasts are impossible. Therefore, the decision to forgo calculating the reasonably foreseeable GHG emissions associated with the CRR was arbitrary in light of the agencies’ apparent ability to perform such calculations and their decision to include a detailed economic analysis of the benefits associated with the rule.”

The judge halted all exploration work in the meantime, voided the agencies’ approval of the exploration plan, and asked both sides to confer and see if they can come up with a settlement of issues.


About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.