Enviro groups push Forest Service to not revive coal mine ‘loophole’ in Colorado

WildEarth Guardians said May 26 that it joined more than 100,000 people in a May 22 petition calling on the U.S. Forest Service to reject a proposal to allow Arch Coal (NYSE: ACI) to bulldoze dozens of miles of roads through pristine national forest in Colorado’s backcountry in support of the company’s West Elk longwall mine.

National and local conservation groups called on the U.S. Forest Service to abandon a move to revive a “loophole” to the Colorado Roadless Rule, announced in April. The loophole paves the way for Arch Coal to expand its West Elk mine in an area where crucial wildlife reside. Under the proposal, dozens of miles of road could be bulldozed across 19,000 acres of publicly owned roadless forest, destroying habitat for black bear and elk, goshawk and lynx. Oxbow Mining—recently cited with building roads and drill pads beyond its permitted area—could also benefit from the loophole, the groups said.

In 2014, Earthjustice, representing local and national organizations, won a court decision to block the loophole in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado. The court left the door open for the Forest Service to revive it if the agency undertook a new analysis that adequately disclosed the climate pollution the loophole would cause. The agency intends to analyze the loophole’s potential harms and benefits in a draft environmental impact statement, which will be released this fall for public review and comment. A final decision on the loophole is expected in the spring of 2016.

This all relates to a roadless rule put out in the last days of the Clinton Administration that barred the building of new roads in protected federal properties. That rule went though years of litigation, with the Colorado state government coming out earlier this decade with its own version of the rule that allowed continued roadbuilding around the three coal mines along the North Fork of the Gunnison River – the West Elk mine of Arch, the Elk Creek mine of Oxbow and the Bowie No. 2 mine of Bowie Resources. All of this is undeground mining, with the surface disturbances in the Forest Service areas needed to support exploratory drilling and establishment of mine ventilation shafts.

“The groundswell of opposition shows the Forest Service’s proposal is not in the public’s interest,” said Earthjustice Attorney Ted Zukoski, who represented the groups in federal court. “There is no winning with a loophole that threatens the world’s climate, as well as Colorado’s wild forests, wildlife, hikers and hunters.”

“Our forests and our climate are being thrown under the bus for a single coal company,” said Jeremy Nichols with WildEarth Guardians. “We’re calling on the Forest Service to stop its plans and start putting the public, not Arch Coal, first.”

The May 22 letter to the Forest Service said the 2012 Colorado Roadless Rule Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) estimated that permitting road construction for coal mining in the North Fork roadless areas would make available for mining nearly 350 million tons of coal that would otherwise remain unmined. “By extending by years coal mining at one and perhaps two North Fork mines, the proposed action will also prolong the pollution of millions of cubic feet a day of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, which only one North Fork Valley mine has shown limited interest in capturing or mitigating,” the letter added. 

“The purpose of the road construction is to enable coal companies to construct facilities necessary to vent methane,” the letter said. “The Forest Service estimated that the coal mine exception could result in the construction of up to 600 drilling pads (a density of 20 per square mile), which would scrape down to bare dirt 180 acres across the North Fork area. The landscape above Arch Coal’s West Elk Mine is already blanketed by a tight network of roads, as well as pockmarked and degraded by drill pads.

“Those who tout coal from the North Fork as ‘clean’ can only do so by ignoring the degradation of roadless areas and massive amounts of methane wasted to mine it, and the greenhouse gas pollution caused by burning it. On the other hand, the alleged benefits of allowing this pollution and habitat destruction will likely accrue only to a single entity: Arch Coal’s West Elk mine. The Colorado Roadless Rule was likely only to benefit two mines in the North Fork: West Elk and Oxbow’s Elk Creek mine. But Elk Creek, closed by a mine fire, has remained idle since 2013 and seems unlikely to re-open in the near future, given current trends in the national and international coal markets. Because West Elk still has approximately 11 years of coal reserves remaining, the Forest Service has time to help local communities transition to a more stable, cleaner economy in the North Fork Valley while preserving the natural environment and protecting the climate.

“Although some may support restoring the coal mine exception because it was originally part of a political deal among numerous interests, that deal was never a good one for Colorado roadless areas. Despite Forest Service assertions to the contrary, the Colorado Roadless Rule with the coal mine exception was less protective of roadless forest than the 2001 national Roadless Rule it supplanted.”

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.