On a tree-shaded corner of the town park in Paonia, Colorado, a life-sized statue of a miner stands, his pick gripped in both hands and his gaze turned toward Coal Mountain, a small peak in the West Elk Range of the Rocky Mountains. The statue honors the 68 men who have died in nearby mines since 1906, and acknowledges the historic importance of coal to the community (which is also HCN's hometown). These days, though, it also stands as a monument to an energy source whose future is in flux.
About a third of American power plants run on coal, and more than half of it comes from Western mines. But even though it remains the country's greatest single source of fuel for electricity, its prominence is slipping; as recently as 2007, for example, coal-fired plants produced half the nation's power. Much of the drop is due to economics, as more plants convert from coal to cheaper natural gas. But more than economics are involved: The battle over coal is increasingly moving into law and public policy.
In June, a federal judge in Colorado stopped a lease expansion for the West Elk Mine, one of three mines in the North Fork Valley, above Paonia. The judge said that the agencies involved had failed to adequately account for climate impacts, either from the mine's operations or from emissions that could come from burning the new coal. The decision came just after the Environmental Protection Agency issued a new set of regulations for power plant emissions, and though it may be appealed, it could set new precedents in the way mines and agencies calculate coal's cost to the climate. It also came as the White House continues to push a climate change agenda through agencies like the EPA and the Bureau of Land Management.
Still, when U.S. District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson – a Western judge appointed by President Obama – ruled to enjoin expansion of the West Elk Mine, it came as something of a shock.