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A Chance To Do It Right On Western Coal

In 2009, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued an order taking aim at climate change, saying: "The Department is ... taking the lead in protecting our country's lands and resources from the dramatic effects of climate change....  The realities of climate change require us to change how we manage the land, water, fish and wildlife ... and resources we oversee."  Bold stuff.

Sadly, the Department has done little to apply this directive to coal mining, a huge source of climate-change-inducing greenhouse gases. 

Something like a third of the nation's coal is mined from public lands managed by Ken Salazar's Interior Department.  And all of that coal goes up in smoke, mostly in power plants that spew out a huge chunk of the country's climate-change-causing greenhouse gases. 


Underground mines in Colorado do double duty in worsening climate change.  Not only does their coal produce millions of tons of carbon dioxide, but the mines emit annually billions of cubic feet of methane, a gas more than 20 times more powerful than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

Despite these facts, Interior and Salazar have done almost nothing to either limit coal mine methane emissions, or to get coal mines to offset (pay for) the costs of greenhouse emissions caused by federal coal.

But the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has one more chance to get it right at Oxbow's Elk Creek Mine in Colorado.  

In January, the BLM approved a 780-acre expansion at Elk Creek.  The expansion will require building or rebuilding a couple of miles of road and bulldozing a half-dozen well-pads to drill methane vents.  The BLM didn't consider ways to limit methane emissions, nor assess the climate change impacts of burning the mine's coal.  The agency also ignored the air pollution impacts of running the mine for an additional year, something the expansion makes possible.

Working on behalf of WildEarth Guardians and the Sierra Club, Earthjustice filed an appeal to the Interior Department, citing these flaws and asking the Interior Department to take a fresh look at the expansion.  And, surprisingly, last week the BLM announced it would do just that.

The BLM's announcement that it plans to take a new look at this mine expansion is a breath of fresh air - literally.  It gives the BLM the chance to assess air pollution that may harm human health and other values.  After that hard look, we hope the BLM and Oxbow will take some reasonable steps to reduce that pollution.  And it gives the BLM the same chance to reduce or offset climate change impacts from the mine.

On the other hand, the BLM could still choose to do nothing about the mine's air pollution and climate change impacts.  

Here's hoping Secretary Salazar will press his employees at the BLM to live up to his bold statements on climate change, for a change. 

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