Climate canary

Greenhouse gases are changing the way we talk about coal.

  • Arch Coal's West Elk Mine, bottom left in image, and some of its methane-venting wells that stretch into the national forest above it.

    Google Earth
  • A methane well in the West Elk Mountains of Western Colorado. A judge has blocked expansion of the West Elk Mine's lease, saying the BLM failed to calculate climate effects of expanding the mine, both from venting methane and from burning coal to generate electricity.

    WildEarth Guardians

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.

Jeremy Nichols
Jeremy Nichols
Aug 27, 2014 02:05 PM
Here's some more pictures of what methane venting above the West Elk coal mine looks like,[…]/.

The bigger problem here is that the Interior Dept. is not just completely out of step with the Obama Administration's effort to curtail carbon, but completely out of step with the science that says carbon cuts are needed to confront climate change. Contrary to the article's suggestion otherwise, the fact is that the Bureau of Land Management has not gotten the memo from the Obama Administration that it has a role to play in combating climate change when managing publicly owned coal. Instead, the Bureau of Land Management seems to think the problem is with smokestacks and that the solution lies with those who regulate stacks, like EPA. This is akin to blaming roadside litter on the failure of clean-up crews to get on the mess, rather than pointing the finger at the actual litterbugs.

if the West Elk decision is appealed by the feds, it will be a stunning defense of climate denial by the Obama Administration. Worse, such an appeal would strongly indicate that the Obama Administration's commitment to curtailing carbon is, sadly, more rhetoric than reality.

Jeremy Nichols
Climate and Energy Program Director
WildEarth Guardians