West Elk exempt from stay
Fine print deflates green groups’ optimism stirred by Obama’s pause on leases.
Conservation groups celebrated last week when Arch Coal filed for bankruptcy, buoying hope that the state’s largest coal producer would abort plans to expand the West Elk Mine into a roadless area near Paonia.
That hope grew Friday when the Obama Administration ordered amoratorium on new leases for coal mines on federal land, saying it was time to study the health and environmental impacts of the government’s decades- old coal- leasing program.
But a closer look at the Obama declaration deflated optimism for the end of Arch Coal’s longtime plan to mine 173 million tons of coal from 1,700 acres of the 5,800acre Sunset Roadless Area in Gunnison County.
Themoratorium does not apply to pending leases that have received a final decision by a federal landlord, such as the U. S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. That includes leases “undergoing re- evaluation after having been vacated by judicial decision,” reads the fine print in the Interior Department’s announcement of a comprehensive reviewof potential reforms to the nation’s coal program.
That clause appears to specifically exempt Arch Coal’s West Elk underground mine expansion.
“Why should this one failing coal company get so many chances to harm our public health when we as a nation are now taking a much needed pause to look at opportunities to move away from coal towards cleaner energy sources?” said Roger Singer, the Sierra Club’s regional manager in Colorado.
Still, conservationists hailed the potential three- year pause of federal coal leasing. They said at least 30 applications from coal compa---
nies could be suspended under the moratorium, while another 17 could proceed because federal environmental reviews of the leases were complete.
Arch Coal, which operates two mines in Wyoming as well as West Elk in Somerset, last week filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, hoping to erase $ 4.5 billion in debt after three years of losing money as the country shifts toward cheaper natural gas. The holder of the second- largest coal reserve in the U.S. was Colorado’ s top producer through November, according to the Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining& Safety.
Arch Coal has tried since 2010 — when its stock traded formore than $ 350 a share— towin the expansion for the West Elk operation. ( On Friday, its stock price dropped below 20 cents a share.)
In 2014, a federal judge sided with environmentalists who sued to stop the expansion, ruling that the Forest Service and BLM should have considered the climate impacts of mining and burning coal when the agencies approved the expansion two years before.
The federal judge also vacated the nearly 20,000-acreNorth Fork Coal Mining Area exemption from the 2012 Colorado Roadless Rule.
Friday’s moratorium follows that judge’s line of thinking, promising to weigh coal royalty payments as well as the environmental impact of both extracting and burning the coal.
In 2015, the Forest Service pro- posed restoring the North Fork Valley coal exemption to Colorado’s roadless rule, which would allow mining and road development in the area. Arch Coal wants to build roads to install surface methane vents for the mine.
The public- comment period for the Forest Service’s proposal to open the roadless area to coal development ended Friday. Many environmental groups are opposed to the plan, saying the methane emissions would erase at least half of the methane reductions the state stands to achieve with new air pollution rules for the energy industry.
“The mine just treats our atmosphere like a sewer,” said Ted Zukoski, an Earthjustice attorney who represents conservation groups in the fight to stop the expansion. The federal government’s promise to study the social costs of coal extraction and burning will reveal multibillion- dollar impacts to the global environment and world economy, Zukoski said.
“There is certainly more going against this proposal right now than ever before,” Zukoski said. “The costs are huge.”
ArchCoal spokeswoman Logan Bornacorsi said West Elk Mine in Somerset is operating as normal. The expansion, she said, remains important to the mine, its 320 employees and the regional economy.
The fact that area was exempted from the state’s roadless rule indicates its importance as a coalproducing region, she said.
“The Colorado Road less Rule is a product of years of successful collaboration, which carefully balanced the interests of a number of stakeholders,” Bornacorsi said.“We urge the agency to reinstate the North Fork exception to the Colorado Roadless Rule.”
Arch Coal runs theWest Elk Mine and two inWyoming, including inWright, above.