Starving coal power plants to save the environment is misguided.
There are many reasons to oppose two applications in Colorado to expand existing coal mining operations, but one of those reasons is not the mounting climate change “social cost” of burning coal and releasing methane.
Yes, the buildup of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere is distressing and contributing to the global warming that poses a real — albeit distant — threat to our environment, wildlife and coastal cities.
But the place to effect meaningful change is not on the front end by eliminating the extraction of coal and gas from the ground. Interfering with efforts to meet our nation’s demand for coal will hurt nearly every community in America where 32 percent of the U.S. power market still depends on burning this dirty fossil fuel to power cities.
In Colorado, coal is used to produce 54 percent of the state’s electricity.
Forcing coal power plants out of commission by starvation will hurt far worse than carefully planning a transition and continuing this inexorable march away from coal over time.
Arch Coal has proposed taking an additional 173 million tons of coal from an expansion of its West Elk Mine into a pristine, roadless area of the Gunnison National Forest. Roads would need to be built as would ventilation pads for the release of methane and other gases.
Peabody Energy has asked to extract around 4 million tons of coal from the existing Foidel Creek Mine near Oak Creek and Steamboat Springs. The expansion wouldn’t disturb the privately owned land above and would instead use longwall mining — think horizontal drilling but for coal.
Instead of trying to bar these applications from proceeding on the basis of climate change, the question should be what would it take for the industry to operate responsibly in Colorado as miners? There’s no doubt it’s a scary time as we wait to see how the Trump administration could answer that question. The president has pledged to bring back the coal industry’s heyday, and that would likely require throwing off important environmental regulations.
Peabody Energy and Arch Coal should be held accountable for the impacts mining has on the environment — not for the impact of another party that will use the coal. The state and local communities should work with the coal industry to limit venting or flaring large amounts of methane gas. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that should not be intentionally released and wasted unless there is no other option.
The Elk Creek mine — located near the West Elk mine — uses gas captured in the tunnels to power operations. Something similar could be done with the expansion.
Colorado has done a good job moving the coal industry away from self-assured bonds — a practice that can leave abandoned mines for taxpayers to clean up in the increasingly likely event a company becomes insolvent. Instead, Colorado requires companies to pay for insurance that is held externally and not based on their assets, and can be used to reclaim abandoned mines.
We have faith in our state and federal agencies to adequately regulate this industry, and if after all these regulations, Peabody and Arch still find it economical to expand in Colorado, everyone will win.