Courts force feds to consider climate impacts of mining coal

A Colorado mine sees the latest in a string of rulings that may threaten the industry.


The Colorado coal industry is bristling this week, following the second ruling by a federal judge in Denver calling for climate impacts to be included in assessments of mining endeavors.

In a ruling last week, federal district Judge R. Brooke Jackson declared that a federal agency should have considered the greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal before approving revised permits for two mines in northwest Colorado, Colowyo and Trapper, a decision industry officials say potentially threatens mining statewide.

Northwest Colorado's Trapper and Colowyo coal mines feed the Craig Station power plant.
Jimmy Thomas

In his ruling, Jackson said he would cancel Colowyo’s permit in 120 days if the federal government fails to complete such an analysis and give the public a chance to comment on it. As HCN reported, Jackson last year stopped an expansion at the West Elk Mine near Paonia, Colorado, in part because the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management failed to work hard enough to account for climate impacts both from operating the mine and burning the coal that comes from it.

A third ruling from a different judge in March similarly found that the government should have considered emissions from combustion of coal when it analyzed the environmental impact of an expansion at the Navajo Mine in New Mexico. That judge ordered activities to stop in a new section of the mine, despite the high costs to the mining company estimated at $400,000 a month.

These rulings are pressuring federal agencies to incorporate greenhouse gas emissions into environmental reviews, but as HCN has reported, federal officials have no uniform methodology for doing so and are unsure about how to go about it.

Christy Goldfuss, acting head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality testified before a House committee on Wednesday, describing the guidance her office is preparing on when and how agencies should consider the effects of greenhouse gas emissions in environmental reviews required by the National Environmental Policy Act. She compared the analyses to calorie counts on menus or cereal boxes that would inform decisions but would not require agencies to select alternatives with the least emissions. The guidance recommends calculating greenhouse gas impacts for projects that would emit the equivalent of at least 25,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, which she equated to burning 26 million pounds of coal, or converting 190 acres of forest to cropland.

Republicans, such as Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, argue that federal agencies would be overstepping their authority if they consider climate impacts during environmental reviews.

The Colowyo and Trapper surface mines near Craig, Colorado, fuel the Craig Station power plant. In his ruling, Jackson criticized the federal government argument that it didn’t do more environmental analysis because it didn’t want to usurp authority from the state, which regulates surface mines on federal land. “Usurping is one thing; rubber stamping is another,” wrote Jackson, adding that the federal Office of Surface Mining “cannot shirk” its obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Instead, Jackson wrote that if the Office of Surface Mining “can predict how much coal will be produced, it can likewise attempt to predict the environmental effects of its combustion.”

The Colorado Mining Association called on the Office of Surface Mining to appeal the ruling, saying it represents an unprecedented expansion of federal regulatory powers. (The Office of Surface Mining’s legal team is assessing the ruling and the agency has yet to decide “the appropriate way to go forward,” agency spokesman Christopher Holmes said.)

The Colorado Mining Association argued that Jackson’s ruling would mandate costly studies that would be speculative, because mining companies can’t control the decisions of companies that burn their coal.

Stuart Sanderson, president of the association, told HCN that the ruling threatens mining statewide both because of the delays these studies would cause and the possibility that every existing mine permit could be reopened at any time for failing to analyze climate impacts.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper met with local governments in northwest Colorado on Tuesday and told reporters that the state also was considering legal action.

“If we need to have more environmental assessment, do more environmental assessment, don't shut the mine down,” Hickenlooper told KREX-TV in Grand Junction, Colorado. “Don't kick people off their jobs.”

The Colowyo mine, owned by Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association Inc., has the most at stake, because the federal coal targeted by the lawsuit at Trapper mine already has been extracted. Colowyo employs 220 people and contributes more than $200 million to the regional economy, including an estimated $12 million in local, state and federal taxes, according to Tri-State. In Colorado, coal miners’ wages and benefits average $123,000 annually, according to The Colorado Mining Association.

Even the environmentalist who filed the case doesn’t want Colowyo to have to lay off workers.

“I want the Interior Department to respond in 120 days, so that Colowyo doesn’t have to be shut down,” Jeremy Nichols, the climate and energy program director at WildEarth Guardians, said.

Nichols said he pursued this and other cases because he believes the federal government should inform the public about the climate impacts of burning coal mined on federal lands.

Nevertheless, Nichols said he does hope that once the government provides an honest accounting of the climate consequences of using coal, the public will see the “dismal picture” and think twice about approving more coal mines in the future.

“It’s high time that the future of mining be weighed against the future of the climate,” he said. 

 Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's DC Correspondent. 

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