Judge cites climate change in coal ruling
Global-warming worries derail expansion of mine
A federal judge Friday stopped a planned expansion of the West Elk Mine in Somerset, saying agencies that approved the project failed to take a “hard look” at its purported impact on global climate change.
Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and WildEarth Guardians, filed their lawsuit a year ago, challenging plans by the mine’s operator, Arch Coal, to expand into a section of land beneath the 1,700-acre Sunset Roadless Area. The expansion project — approved by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management — would have required the building of temporary roads and the drilling of up to 48 wells in order to vent methane. The groups also opposed Arch’s plans to drill exploratory wells.
A national rule prohibits road construction in roadless areas. But the Forest Service authorized Arch Coal’s plans based on the agency’s approval of a Colorado-specific rule that makes an exception for temporary roads for coal mining in the North Fork Valley.
But global concerns were the primary concern of U.S. District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson.
“While the agencies provided an adequate disclosure of effects on adjacent lands, their treatment of the costs associated with (greenhouse gas emissions) from the mine was arbitrary and capricious,” Jackson wrote.
“The specific issue is whether the agencies took a ‘hard look’ at the (Colorado Roadless Rule’s) contribution to climate change, not whether the (Colorado Roadless Rule) is a good idea or a bad idea,” he wrote, further finding that the agencies failed in their necessary scrutiny during the project’s NEPA approval process.
“For years, BLM has been telling the public that its individual coal leasing decisions — even those approving hundreds of millions of tons of coal — have no impact on our climate. That assumption is out the window,” said Roger Singer, senior organizing member with the Sierra Club in Colorado, in a press release after the decision.
Attorney Ted Zukowski with Earthjustice, the group that filed the suit on behalf of environmental organizations, said that the decision “means that these agencies can’t bury their heads in the sand when confronting the very real impacts of climate change.”
A spokesman for WildEarth Guardians said, “Thankfully, the feds will have to take into account the costs of carbon pollution before approving more coal mining.”
Arch Coal lamented the decision, but said the situation at West Elk would remain mostly status quo.
“We are disappointed in today’s ruling. We believe that the ruling contains several serious errors,” wrote Arch spokeswoman Kim Link in an email.
“While concerning, today’s ruling will not necessitate any immediate changes at the mine. Coal mining requires complex, long-term planning and today’s ruling complicates our efforts in that regard. We are still analyzing parts of the ruling and evaluating our options,” she wrote.
The BLM has said the West Elk Mine has between nine and 11 years of current coal reserves. The expansion could have extended the life of the mine an additional three years, according to analysis.
In Friday’s decision, the court prohibited any road construction in the roadless area, and asked attorneys for all parties to come up with a way to proceed in light of the decision.
Judge Richard Brooke Jackson has sat on the District Court bench since September 1, 2011, and is an appointee of President Barack Obama, according to Wikipedia.
— Staff writer Dennis Webb contributed to this story.