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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.