Forest Service sticks up for coal mining on roadless lands

The agency will calculate climate impacts of mine expansions in western Colorado.

 

The U.S. Forest Service announced it will try to reinstate the exemption to Colorado’s roadless rule that allows coal mines to build roads in protected areas of Western Colorado.  The exemption was struck down last summer by a federal court because the government failed to assess the impact of that future coal mining on climate change.

In his September order, District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson  also stopped the expansion of Arch Coal’s West Elk Mine into the Sunset Roadless Area of the Gunnison National Forest because the federal government had failed to take a “hard look” at potential contributions to climate change as required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

Photograph courtesy WildEarth Guardians, Flickr.
Jackson's ruling was the first to require the government to calculate climate impacts when it approves extraction of fossil fuels from federal lands, as HCN.org reported.


Now, the agency will wade into uncharted territory as it tries to meet the court’s requirement that it fully consider greenhouse gas emissions from future coal mining under the Colorado roadless rule. Burning coal emits more greenhouse gases than other methods of generating electricity. Additionally, coal seams in the North Fork Valley, where the West Elk Mine is located, contain a lot of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, and the mines vent it through networks of wells, since the government does not require them to capture methane.

Forest Service officials say they will assess such impacts, but they are not yet sure how. The federal government has not required assessments of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel extraction from federal lands, nor has it established criteria for doing so.

“There is no uniform methodology,” said Jim Bedwell, director of recreation, lands and minerals of the agency’s Rocky Mountain region. “That’s all very much evolving. It’s in discussion about how to best approach these things.”

Environmental groups criticized the government for trying to reinstate the mining exemption in Colorado’s roadless rule, which allows for temporary road construction for coal mining in a 19,100-acre chunk of the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison national forests.

“We’re deeply disappointed that the Forest Service is continuing to push what is destructive of beautiful roadless lands and damaging to climate and undercuts the Obama administration’s commitment to reducing climate emissions,” said Ted Zukoski, a lawyer for Earthjustice, who represents environmental groups in the case.

Forest Service officials said they were respecting the collaborative process that resulted in the 2012 Colorado roadless rule, which was a compromise between industry and environmental groups. President Clinton protected 58.5 million acres of forest land from logging and development under a national roadless plan, which as HCN reported withstood multiple court challenges. Colorado and Idaho are the only two states that have since adopted their own roadless plans.

“All we’re doing here is following through on the previous intentions and reinstating this exception, if that’s the way this plays out, so that at least we may be able to proceed with any leasing,” said Bedwell.

Colorado officials and representatives of Arch Coal, which owns the one mine most likely to benefit from the provision, cheered the government’s announcement.

Mike King, executive director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources, said the future expansion of Arch’s West Elk Mine “was an integral part” of the compromise between industry and environmental groups that resulted in the Colorado roadless rule. Without the expansion, the mine would be forced to close, he added.  “Protecting those jobs in the North Fork and protecting the agreement that was made is critical to Colorado.”

Public input received through May 21 will be considered in the draft Environmental Impact Statement, which the Forest Service plans to complete late this fall. A final decision would come about six months later.

On a separate track, the agency together with the Bureau of Land Management also will reconsider coal lease modifications for the West Elk Mine, which the court also struck down.

“We encourage the agency to move with all due haste in keeping with the importance of the Colorado Roadless Rule to the economies in the North Fork and the state as a whole,” Arch Coal spokeswoman Logan Bonacorsi said in an e-mail.

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's DC Correspondent. Follow her @ShogrenE.  

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Crested Butte Land Trust seeks a development director to lead its fundraising efforts. Remote and unspoiled, Crested Butte is located in one of the Rockies...
  • PRICE REDUCED $94,300 - LOT SOUTH OF MONTROSE
    5-Acre Home Site, Great Views with Spectacular Sunsets From a South Facing Home Site. Excellent for Passive Solar Design. Covenants, No HOA. Keller Williams Co....
  • CHARMING HOME/FARM NEAR CLIFF, NM
    3 bed/2 bath, detached strawbale building. 11.7 acres, barn, corrals, fenced. Wells, solar panels, greenhouses. Paved access. 575-535-2568.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    WildEarth Guardians seeks two public interest-focused staff attorneys with a minimum of 5 years experience to join our legal team. Experience with at least some...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF NEW MEXICO WILDLIFE FEDERATION
    The New Mexico Wildlife Federation is seeking an Executive Director, a visionary leader who is passionate about public lands, dedicated to executing an innovative strategic...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE SPECIALIST I
    HIGH COUNTRY NEWS Customer Service Specialist I General Statement of Duties: Works closely with the customer service manager performing high-volume routine computer database work. Also...
  • FINANCE ASSOCITE
    We are hiring a Finance Associate Full time, competitive pay and benefits, based in Bozeman,MT Visit www.greateryellowstone.org/careers for details GYC is an equal opportunity employer
  • ARAVAIPA LAND STEWARD
    The Aravaipa Land Steward coordinates preserve stewardship work and general operations including maintenance and general preserve management. Implements preserve management plans, which may include species...
  • VP OF DEVELOPMENT
    seeks a talented and dynamic development professional, with a passion for protecting our natural environment, to lead our development and fundraising team.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Native American Fish and Wildlife Society seeks an Executive Director in Denver, CO to serve as the Chief Administrator of the national Native American...
  • DEVELOPMENT ASSISTANT
    High Country News seeks a development assistant to assist with fundraising campaigns. HCN is an award-winning, national news magazine. Strong candidates will have experience administering...
  • LAND ACQUISTIONS SPECIALIST - RENEWABLE ENERGY
    Energiekontor US seeks experienced local candidate, must reside in western South Dakota. Send resume and cover letter to: [email protected]
  • WILDLAND FIRE INSTRUCTOR
    Needed: instructor with 5 years *documented* instruction experience, current qualifications, M-410 or equivalent, and able to work as-needed for NM non-profit working with at-risk youth.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...
  • CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED BIGHORN RIVER BASIN PROJECT MANAGER
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • DIRECTOR OF VISITOR SERVICES & BOOKSTORE OPERATIONS
    The San Juan Mountains Association in Durango, CO is seeking a Director of Visitor Services & Bookstore Operations to lead our visitor information program &...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...