Compromise needed on West Elk Mine

Even if Arch Coal is allowed to vent methane directly into the atmosphere as part of a West Elk Mine expansion that will keep miners employed for a few more years, the industry’s days appear to be numbered in the North Fork Valley.

Mining jobs are important to the North Fork’s economy, so we hope they can be preserved for as long as possible — if nothing else, to give the region time to transition to a new economic reality. So it’s imperative for the mine and federal permitting agencies to reach an accord on how the mine deals with methane, lest those jobs becomes casualties of a methane-fueled controversy.

The Sentinel’s Dennis Webb has followed this story closely, quoting sources who point to the mine as Colorado’s largest single industrial emitter of methane — a potent greenhouse gas.

After a lawsuit by conservationists, a federal judge in 2014 vacated the North Fork mining exemption to Colorado’s Roadless Rule and canceled lease modifications Arch Coal obtained on two existing leases to allow for the eventual 1,700-acre expansion of its mine. The judge said the federal government failed to consider the climate-change impacts of its actions.

The Forest Service then acted to reinstate the roadless exemption after doing more environmental review, finding that the exemption could result in billions of dollars in global greenhouse gas impacts but citing the industry’s importance to the local economy. Now the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are again considering approving the lease modifications. The public comment period on a draft supplemental environmental impact statement ended last week, resulting in tens of thousands of comments.

As Webb aptly summarized in a recent story, Gunnison County commissioners are caught in the middle, recognizing the importance of the mining jobs, but voicing concerns on behalf of constituents about the mine’s contributions to climate change. Commissioners are asking Arch Coal to consider the feasibility of capturing methane rather than venting it.

There has to be a sweet spot in here somewhere that would allow the mine to continue operating — even if it pays a reduced royalty rate — so long as the company applies those savings to enact a methane-mitigation program. It could capture the gas or, at the very least, flare it off.

If that isn’t economically feasible, then mining shouldn’t occur until technological improvements or higher coal and gas prices make methane mitigation feasible. That’s a suggestion by Candice Long, a geoscientist with Raven Ridge Resources, a Grand Junction company that works internationally on coal mine methane emissions.

We agree with that position. Gov. John Hickenlooper should press the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to require Arch to deal with methane as a condition of the project’s approval.


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