Somerset mines consider proposed roadless exemption crucial

While two mines in the Somerset area remain interested in methane capture, a bigger political issue for them at the moment may be the roadless debate.

Greg Schaefer, vice president of external affairs for St. Louis-based Arch Coal’s western operations, which include subsidiary Mountain Coal Co.‘s West Elk Mine, said the state’s proposed roadless rule would make a crucial exemption for coal-mining operations in Somerset.

“The importance of this … is that it preserves about 1,000 jobs in the North Fork Valley,” Schaefer said, referring to the rough total employment of the valley’s West Elk, Elk Creek and Bowie No. 2 mines.

The Colorado Roadless Rule would provide conservation direction for some 4 million acres of National Forest lands. For example, road construction and tree cutting would be prohibited in roadless areas, with some exceptions.

The Western Slope Environmental Resource Council in Paonia supports the Somerset-area coal mine exemption, putting it at odds with many other such groups that would prefer that Gov. Bill Ritter abandon the state rule in favor of a national roadless rule.

The council’s executive director, Rob Peters, said his group’s position stems from its recognition of the local mines’ importance to the economy.

Ultimately, the group would like to see an eventual transition away from coal as an energy source.

Still, said Steve Wolcott, chairman of its coal committee, “We’re supporting the mines’ ability to temporarily go into the roadless areas to vent the methane in order to keep the mines safe, keep the mines operating so that they can supply clean coal to the power plants so they can meet the requirements of the Clean Air Act.”

Low-sulfur North Fork Valley coal is shipped to other parts of the country where it can be combined with dirtier coal to produce an environmentally compliant mixture.

The West Elk Mine has federal coal leases that predate the Clinton administration 2001 rule intended to protect roadless areas from surface disturbances, including coal operations such as installing vents for methane. As a result, those leases wouldn’t be affected by the rule, which has been the subject of conflicting court rulings. But Schaefer said Arch Coal hopes to gain access to other unleased areas that would be affected by the rule.

If proposed legislation to codify that rule as a law passes during the Obama administration, as Schaefer fears may happen, and if Colorado doesn’t ultimately adopt its own rule with the coal exemption, that would be “probably the worst of all worlds for us,” he said.

Oxbow Mining LLC, owner of the Elk Creek Mine, has been frustrated by the delay in action on the proposed Colorado rule, which the Ritter administration revised and put out for more public comment. Oxbow Mining president James Cooper said the company has areas it hopes to mine as early as next year but it doesn’t have approval to do so. Oxbow obtained its federal lease just months after the Clinton rule took effect.

Oxbow objects to land above its federal lease being labeled a roadless area under the Clinton rule, and even under the state proposal that nevertheless would allow coal operations there. Company officials say it had been essentially nothing more than a roadless study area until the Clinton rule came out, and they question the land’s roadless character. Now they’re put in the position of having to hope the coal exemption will stand.

Although they also have no immediate interests there, they also think the industry should be allowed access to the Currant Creek area in Delta County. The Western Slope Environmental Resource Council opposes an exemption in that area for coal mining. Peters said its lack of roads makes it valuable for wildlife.

“We think it needs to remain untouched,” he said.


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