Dispatch from coal country: Advocates and adversaries duel over leasing reform

In western Colorado, two visions for the future of fossil fuels collide at a BLM listening session.


In the late 1890s, when coal mines began operating in Western mountain communities, miners took caged canaries underground to alert them to danger. If potentially deadly gases, such as carbon monoxide and methane, were to leak out of the coal seams, the sight of a fragile yellow bird in distress warned the miners to flee. Although birds haven’t been used in this way since the 20th century, the phrase “canary in a coal mine” has become a cliché for imminent doom.

In the western Colorado town of Grand Junction in late June, canaries were there, too — in a way. At a Bureau of Land Management hearing to collect public input on coal-leasing reform, dozens of middle-aged men and women and their families wore bright yellow T-shirts with the word “Coal” printed on them. They, too, were warning of danger: the decline of the coal mining industry, due to a combination of market downturns and strict environmental regulations. Coal miners across the West are already facing job cutbacks and layoffs. 

I eavesdrop on a conversation about boom-and-bust economies. This one is different, some say. “The science is undeniable. Without question, we must divest from fossil fuels to curb climate change,” says Joseph Stein, a clean-cut, Boulder-based Climate Reality Project intern with a #KeepItInTheGround sticker on his white shirt. Bill Jardon, a coal miner who lives in Eckert, about an hour’s drive to the southeast, just shakes his head.   

Here, on the state’s westernmost edge, two visions of the future are colliding. The “Keep it in the Ground” movement wants to ensure a sustainable climate future; the “Keep the Lights On” group hopes to protect jobs in coal communities.

The hearing, one of the three such gatherings taking place around the West, is the latest action in a three-year process meant to reform the BLM’s coal-leasing program, which hasn’t been rehashed in nearly four decades, since the Nixon administration. The agency is reviewing the current program and collecting input on what exactly coal leasing in the 21st century should look like. The goal is to determine when and where to lease, how to ensure fair returns to taxpayers if royalty rates are adjusted, and how to better account for environmental and public health impacts.  

  • Coal industry proponents left their signs behind as they entered the auditorium for the BLM's hearing on coal leasing reform in June.

    Paige Blankenbuehler
  • Coal mining industry advocates line up in fron of the Avalon Theater in Grand Junction before a Bureau of Land Management leasing-reform hearing.

    Paige Blankenbuehler
  • Representatives from the Climate Reality Project, based in Boulder, Colorado, face-off with Western Colorado coal mining advocates.

    Paige Blankenbuehler
  • Perspectives collide as Bill Jardon, left, and Joe Stein, of the Climate Reality Project, attempt to find some common ground about the future of coal.

    Paige Blankenbuehler
  • Cresta Campos, top left, and her family traveled from Hotchkiss, Colorado, to Grand Junction to weigh in on the future of coal leases during a BLM leasing-reform hearing.

    Paige Blankenbuehler
  • While coal miners have lived through downturns before, the mining sector has hit a 40-year low.

    Paige Blankenbuehler

The reform comes on the heels of global pressures for climate change action and a transition away from fossil fuels such as coal to limit greenhouse gas emissions. In 2015, nearly 200 nations met in Paris to sign a landmark agreement to enforce regulations that would accomplish that, and in January this year, the Obama administration ordered a moratorium that halted future federal coal leases until further notice.

No one is sure how reform might impact the industry. But coal companies and the communities that depend on them regard the timing as suspect, and many of the people I spoke with see leasing reform as a threat to an already struggling industry. As the two groups gather in Grand Junction to debate the future of coal, stakes have never been higher for the disparate visions for the future of energy to power the world while balancing the consequences of climate change. 

On the street in front of Grand Junction’s Avalon Theater, where the coal hearing is about to start, a crowd has gathered, waiting to go inside. Cars slow as they pass; drivers honk at miners waving signs — “NO COAL= NO LIGHTS”; “COAL. IT KEEPS OUR LIGHTS ON.” Pam Eaton, a senior director of The Wilderness Society, is preparing her comment. “Coal has been transitioning for a while, and everyone is looking for someone to blame the decline on — environmental groups, federal regulations — but the market has been driving it out outside of those influences,” she says. Stu Fraser, former mayor of Telluride, Colorado, jumps in. “Some think it’s a callous argument that doesn’t think about the coal communities,” he says, gazing toward a nearby group of yellow shirts. “But we’re here to argue for funding to ease the transition for rural towns and job-training for coal miners.”

There’s a strong sense of community among the coal miners and their families. Cresta Campos, a Hispanic woman with long dark hair, is here with Yasmin and Julian, two of her four children. Both kids wear bright yellow shirts, and Julian’s falls far below his knees. Campos has worked as a coal miner for more than a decade, supporting her family with her salary. She lives in Hotchkiss, a small rural community in Colorado’s North Fork Valley, which has depended largely on coal mining for nearly 120 years. “I worry about keeping my job. I worry about the schools as other miners leave and take their families with them. There are less children,” she says. “If I lost my job, we would have to leave.”

When the hearing begins, at around 10:30 that morning, more than 200 people pack into the auditorium’s seats. Five BLM staffers sit at a long table on the stage. County commissioners from Colorado and Utah open the forum, mostly advocating for the economic interests of their communities.

The first person of 160 to walk to the microphone to speak is a man named Jeremy Nichols. The climate director for WildEarth Guardians, Nichols has become known as one of the fiercest advocates for transitioning away from coal. He arrived in Grand Junction at 4:30 that morning to grab the first spot in line. Nichols wanted to set the tone for the hearing, he said. “I knew the coal mining industry presence would be very strong,” he told me later. “I wanted to make sure the message was clear: It’s time to transition from coal. It’s going to be painful, it’s going to be difficult, and we want to do it in a way that helps these families and won’t decimate their communities, but we must transition.”

Kathy Welt, a tall woman with a formidable stage presence and voluminous voice, delivers her comment on behalf of Western coal families. Welt, an environmental engineer for Arch Coal’s West Elk Mine in Somerset, says there’s nothing wrong with the current coal-leasing program. Any changes to it, she warns, would come at a high cost to tax payers and communities. “Please consider the impacts on real families right here, right now.” When she finishes, the crowd erupts in whooping whistles and applause. The BLM staffers listen quietly.

By the time the comment period nears its end, eight hours later, more than 150 commenters have shared their stories. The biggest question, however, remains unanswered: How can we replace coal but continue to power our world without leaving rural communities high and dry?

People pour out of the auditorium to congregate along the sidewalks, where they lean against building walls and talk. Despite the civil discourse between coal miners and environmentalists that has defined the day, I see the usual cliques quickly re-form. Environmentalists walk off down the sidewalks, their notes now tucked under their arms. Coal miners gravitate to others in bright yellow shirts, their eyebrows furrowed. Like canaries, they have delivered their warning of the danger they see coming to coal country. And then I watch them slowly drive away. 

Paige Blankenbuehler is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets