More than 300,000 comments have flooded the Forest Service as the long-running battle over coal mining in remote Colorado forests continues to roil.
The Obama administration is trying to reinstate a section of the 2012 Colorado roadless rule — a joint effort between federal and state leaders — that set aside 4.2 million acres of Colorado national forest for conservation.
The so-called North Fork exception allows development in 20,000 acres of the Gunnison National Forest. The area is already home to the West Elk coal mine, which bankrupt Arch Coal Inc. is looking to expand.
Environmentalists have gathered more than 150,000 comments opposing the proposal, but Colorado Mining Association President Stuart Sanderson said the groups are just trying to stuff the ballot box against a compromise rule that has bipartisan support in Colorado, including from current Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration.
Environmental groups successfully blocked the exception in 2014 when a federal judge ruled the Forest Service had failed to properly account for its climate impacts (Greenwire, Nov. 12, 2014).
Instead of appealing, the Obama administration is now trying to answer the questions raised by the court in its bid to reinstate the North Fork provision (Greenwire, Nov. 19, 2015).
According to the Forest Service, expanded mining would produce roughly 1 million to 6 million tons of greenhouse gases annually and roughly 12 million to 36 million more during combustion and shipping if the full exemption was reinstated, the administration’s preferred option.
Environmentalists contend Arch mining an extra 170 million tons of coal represents 130 million extra tons of carbon dioxide — roughly equal to Colorado’s annual output.
“States are formulating efforts to comply with the Clean Power Plan,” said Anna McDevitt, lead organizer with Environment Colorado. “A mining project that will spew additional carbon pollution and displace 40,000 gigawatt-hours of renewable energy from the grid is counterproductive to both state and federal priorities.”
Earthjustice and the Sierra Club each gathered 50,000 comments opposing the North Fork exception. Friends of the Earth, the Climate Reality Project, WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity also gathered another 52,000 comments.
“The public has spoken loud and clear: The Forest Service’s plan threatens our children’s future on a livable planet,” said Earthjustice attorney Ted Zukoski.
Leasing moratorium, climate plan
Maintaining a contiguous roadless area not only protects wildlife, but WildEarth Guardians climate and energy advocate Jeremy Nichols argues it will not affect Arch, as the company already has 10 years’ worth of coal under lease.
“President Obama just announced a much-needed and long-overdue halt to new federal coal leasing in order to look seriously at the climate costs of the program,” said Michael Saul, senior public lands attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity (Greenwire, Jan. 15).
“It makes no sense to undermine this bold step by rushing through a costly, unneeded and polluting loophole to allow more coal mining in Colorado’s roadless forests,” he said.
The move also “makes no sense” to Friends of the Earth campaigner Marissa Knodel following Arch’s filing for bankruptcy protection last week (Greenwire, Jan. 11).
“The time for keeping dirty fossil fuels like coal in the ground is now,” she said, repeating the slogan of a mounting environmental campaign (Greenwire, Jan. 20).
Companies point to the Forest Service estimating emissions from the North Fork area would amount to less than 1 percent of national emissions.
“Clearly, mining over the life of this operation will have no impact on climate,” according to the Colorado Mining Association, which has more than 900 members in Colorado and the West.
Environmentalists also have a long history of manufacturing comments thorough online petitions to misrepresent their level of support, Sanderson said.
Not only is mining allowed in a sliver of the massive roadless area, coal remains an important global energy source, something Hickenlooper’s administration has recognized.
In a Jan. 15 letter to the Forest Service, Colorado Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Mike King said the exception was fundamental to balancing conservation and coal mines that “provide critical jobs to Coloradans.”
According to the Colorado Mining Association, North Fork coal supports 723 jobs and generates $286 million in revenue.
“The destruction of these jobs and services, which anti-coal interests seek, would devastate and impoverish rural Colorado and deprive the state and the nation of a source of clean, affordable energy essential to meeting the requirements of the Clean Air Act,” the group wrote.