WildEarth rallies opposition to ‘loophole’ aiding Arch Coal’s West Elk mine

WildEarth Guardians said Jan. 20 that more than 150,000 people, including thousands of Coloradoans, called on the U.S. Forest Service to prevent Arch Coal from bulldozing nearly 70 miles of roads through pristine national forest in Colorado’s backcountry.

The comments came in response to a Forest Service draft environmental analysis on a proposal to reinstate a “loophole” in a rule that protects Colorado’s roadless national forest lands, the environmental group said. Allowing mining operators to build roads through 20,000 acres of roadless forest would permit mining of 170 million tons of coal. Burning that coal would unleash 130 million tons of CO2, said the group.

This dispute is related to a federal roadless rule issued in the late days of the Clinton Administration. Colorado has carved out its own version of the rule that allows roads to be built for coal mine exploration and development along the North Fork of the Gunnison River.

“The public has spoken loud and clear: the Forest Service’s plan threatens our children’s future on a livable planet, our wild forest, our wildlife, and our beautiful areas to hunt, fish, and hike,” said Earthjustice attorney Ted Zukoski, who represented the conservation groups in federal court.

Coal in the North Fork Valley contains huge amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse, which mining companies don’t capture. The Forest Service’s analysis found that mining the coal in the roadless area would unleash enough methane to overwhelm nearly all of the climate benefit of Colorado’s 2014 oil and gas rules, one of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s signature achievements in limiting climate pollution, said the environmental group.

“The gift of our public forest to a bankrupt coal company is just another wasteful and disgraceful subsidy,” said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardian’s climate and energy program director. “It’s time we stopped financing the destruction of our forests and our climate.”

Arch Coal recently sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and plans to emerge from bankruptcy intact with reworked finances. 

The fact that continued coal mining would undercut renewable energy prompted several local solar companies and renewable energy supporters including Vote Solar to oppose the loophole, said WildEarth Guardians. The Interwest Energy Alliance, a western regional renewable energy trade group, expressed concerns about the proposal’s impact.

“Solar and other renewable energy sources are ready to meet our power needs reliably and cost-effectively. Our state and our nation should be investing in the clean energy sources of today, not more of the harmful, polluting and increasingly obsolete fossil fuels of the past,” said Adam Browning, Executive Director of Vote Solar, a national solar advocacy organization. “Given the negative impacts that increased coal extraction would have on community health, climate stability and continued solar progress, we urge the Forest Service to protect Colorado’s roadless lands from coal mining.”

The “loophole” opens the door for Arch Coal to expand its West Elk longwall mine into new reserves in an area of crucial wildlife habitat, the group said. The Forest Service estimated mining coal in the area could result in the bulldozing of 67 miles of road and the construction of 450 drilling pads throughout nearly 20,000 acres of publicly owned roadless forest. 

“President Obama just announced a much-needed and long-overdue halt to new federal coal leasing in order to look seriously at the climate costs of the program,” said Michael Saul with the Center for Biological Diversity. “It makes no sense to  undermine this bold step by rushing through a costly, unneeded, and polluting loophole to allow more coal mining in Colorado’s roadless forests.”

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 decision permitted the Forest Service to revive the loophole if the agency undertook a new analysis that adequately disclosed the climate pollution the loophole would cause. A final decision on the loophole is expected in the spring of 2016. The Interior Department’s “pause” on coal leases announced recently specifically exempts Arch Coal’s proposed expansion plan, said WildEarth Guardians. Rejecting the coal mine loophole would have no immediate impact on Arch’s West Elk Mine, which has a decade of coal already under lease according to the Forest Service, it added.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its U.S. Forest Service are proposing to reinstate the North Fork Coal Mining Area exception of the Colorado Roadless Rule, said the department in a notice published in the Nov. 20, 2015, Federal Register. Along the North Fork of the Gunnison River are three deep mines: the Bowie No. 2 mine of Bowie Resource Partners; the West Elk mine of Arch Coal; and the Elk Creek mine of Oxbow Mining.

The Colorado Roadless Rule is a state-specific rule that provides direction for conserving and managing approximately 4.2 million acres of Colorado Roadless Areas (CRAs) on National Forest System (NFS) lands within Colorado. The North Fork Coal Mining Area exception allowed for temporary road construction for coal exploration and/or coal-related surface activities in an area defined as the North Fork Coal Mining Area.

The Forest Service prepared a supplemental environmental impact statement addressing specific environmental disclosure deficiencies identified by the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado. In addition, the department is proposing to correct certain CRA boundaries associated with the North Fork Coal Mining Area based on updated information. The Forest Service said it would take written comments for 45 days in each case beyond Nov. 20 on both the proposed rule and supplemental draft environmental impact statement.

U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration date shows that West Elk produced 5.1 million tons in 2015, down from 6.2 million tons in 2014. Bowie No. 2 produced 1 million tons last year, against 2.4 million tons in 2014. And, MSHA data shows that Elk Creek is “nonproducing,” with its last production coming in 2013.

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.