West Elk ex­empt from stay

Fine print de­flates green groups’ op­ti­mism stirred by Obama’s pause on leases.

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Ja­son Blevins

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.”

Matthew Brown, As­so­ci­ated Press file

Arch Coal runs theWest Elk Mine and two in­Wy­oming, in­clud­ing in­Wright, above.

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