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Forest Service Moves to Permit Bulldozing for Dirty Coal in Colorado Roadless Forest

Proposed loophole could cause half a billion tons of carbon pollution while undermining Obama administration climate goals
A breathtaking view of a beaver pond in the Sunset Roadless area.

A breathtaking view of a beaver pond in the Sunset Roadless area.

Ted Zukoski / Earthjustice
April 6, 2015
Denver, CO —

National and local conservation groups called on the U.S. Forest Service today to rescind its brazen move to revive a gaping loophole to the Colorado Roadless Rule, announced this morning. The loophole paves the way for Arch Coal—the nation’s second largest coal company—to build roads and scrape well pads over thousands of acres of otherwise-protected, publicly-owned National Forest and crucial wildlife habitat in the state.

The loophole was thrown out by the U.S. District Court of Colorado last year after the Forest Service failed to consider the climate change impacts of providing Arch Coal and one other company with access to up to 350 million tons of federal coal. Re-opening the loophole could result in more than half a billion tons of carbon pollution from mining and burning the coal.

The view from the Deep Creek 'slump,' a prominent geologic feature of the Sunset Roadless Area. The landscape west of the roadless area is already pockmarked with methane venting well pads from the West Elk mine's existing operations.
Ted Zukoski / Earthjustice
The view from the Deep Creek "slump," a prominent geologic feature of the Sunset Roadless Area. The landscape west of the roadless area is already pockmarked with methane venting well pads from the West Elk mine's existing operations.

The mines that would be covered by the loophole—all located in the North Fork Valley near Paonia—daily emit millions of cubic feet of methane, a gas more than 30 times more powerful than CO2 as a heat trapping gas.

“The coal mine loophole is a lose-lose-lose proposition: it’s bad for wildlife, bad for hikers and hunters who enjoy Colorado’s wild forests, and it’s bad for our climate,” said Earthjustice Attorney Ted Zukoski, who represented the groups in federal court. “Last year’s court decision plugged the loophole, and we’ll work to keep it plugged.”

“It's bad enough the Forest Service is considering sacrificing our public lands for dirty coal mining, now they're doing so at the demand of Arch Coal, a company some analysts say is on the verge of bankruptcy,” said Climate and Energy Program Director Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians. “The Forest Service's proposal is not only directly at odds with the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gases, it's at odds with preserving Colorado’s natural legacy of vibrant, wild forests.”

“The Forest Service's proposal undermines the good work the Obama Administration is doing to protect our climate through the Clean Power Plan, fuel efficiency standards and targets for reducing the nation’s carbon emissions,” said Sierra Club Organizer Bryce Carter. “This proposal puts the Forest Service dangerously out of step with the rest of the Administration and makes a sacrifice of our public lands.”

“This plan shows the dangerous disconnect between Obama’s climate rhetoric and his plans to open more public land to the fossil fuel industry,” said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity. “The world’s quickly-dwindling carbon budget has no room for new coal deposits. This coal can’t be burned if we’re going to keep our planet livable. The president should withdraw this proposal now.”

Amanda Jahshan, the Wildlife Energy Conservation Fellow with the Natural Resources Defense Council said "The Forest Service should do what’s good for the people of Colorado—not what’s good for a profit-making company whose product would further pollute our air, despoil our land and worsen carbon pollution that fuels climate change. The service needs to drop this proposal,’’ said Amanda Jahshan, a wildlife energy conservation fellow with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

A thicket of aspen in the Sunset Roadless Area.
Ted Zukoski / Earthjustice
A thicket of aspen in the Sunset Roadless Area.

Among the National Forest lands in the crosshairs of coal mine bulldozing under the proposal is the Sunset Roadless Area, a lush aspen and spruce-fir forest dotted with beaver ponds in western Colorado directly adjacent to the West Elk wilderness.

The loophole paves the way for Arch Coal to expand its underground West Elk mine. For its expansion, Arch plans to bulldoze an extensive road network and scrape dozens of well pads in the Sunset area in order to release methane within the coal below ground.

“The Sunset Roadless Area is home to black bears and elk, goshawk and beaver, and provides habitat for the imperiled lynx,” said Lauren McCain, federal lands policy analyst at Defenders of Wildlife. “Protecting undisturbed wildlife habitat is critical for preserving Colorado natural heritage. The Forest Service’s proposal—which could put miles of road and nearly 50 drilling pads in the Sunset Roadless Area—would damage a wildlife legacy that belongs to all Coloradoans and all Americans.”

“Roadless areas including Sunset are important refuges for wildlife, and help connect larger blocks of habitat for animals to roam and thrive in the face of threats like climate change,” said Matt Sandler, staff attorney for Denver-based Rocky Mountain Wild. “The Forest Service should be protecting these landscapes, not putting them on the chopping block.”

Arch Coal’s mine is located in the North Fork Valley of western Colorado, where coal mining has declined over the past several years, mirroring state and national trends. Competition with cheap natural gas and renewables used to generate electricity and the adoption of regulations to protect public health from toxins including mercury that are emitted during coal combustion have contributed to the recent downturn. Coal production in Colorado last year fell to a 20-year low.

Of the three mines in North Fork Valley, Oxbow’s Elk Creek mine closed in 2013 due to a fire and a second, Bowie, laid off scores of workers after a major purchaser failed to renew a contract.

“The Forest Service's plan to revive the loophole is not compatible with creating diversified and resilient local economies that protect communities from the devastating boom-bust cycle of coal,” said Alli Melton, public lands director for Crested Butte-based High Country Conservation Advocates.

Background

Mount Gunnison perched atop the Sunset Roadless Area.
Ted Zukoski / Earthjustice
Mount Gunnison perched atop the Sunset Roadless Area.

In 2012, the Forest Service adopted the Colorado Roadless Rule, which generally banned road construction on four million acres of the state’s most wild, remote forest lands. The rule, however, contained a number of loopholes, including one permitting road construction on 19,000 acres of roadless forest north and east of Paonia, Colorado to benefit future coal mining proposals there.

In 2013, the Forest Service approved Arch Coal’s proposal to build six miles of road and scrape 48 pads for methane drainage wells in the Sunset Roadless Area, a project made possible by the coal mining loophole.

Conservation groups sued to halt the project in part on the grounds that the Forest Service failed to disclose the extent of carbon pollution generated by mining and burning the 350 million tons of coal made possible by the Colorado Roadless Rule. In June 2014, a federal court sided with the groups, ruled that the Forest Service broke the law by sweeping climate pollution impacts under the rug, and subsequently threw out the coal mine loophole.

The court’s ruling left the door open for the Forest Service to revive the loophole if the agency undertook a new analysis that adequately disclosed the climate pollution the loophole would cause. The Forest Service’s announcement gives the public until May 22 to comment on the proposal.

See photos of the Sunset Roadless Area.

Contacts

Ted Zukoski, Earthjustice, (303) 996-9622

Nathaniel Shoaff, Sierra Club, (415) 977-5610

Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians, (303) 437-7663

Taylor McKinnon, Center for Biological Diversity, (801) 300-2414

Amanda Jahshan, Natural Resources Defense Council, (406) 539-0665

Lauren McCain, Defenders of Wildlife, (720) 943-0453

Lauren McCain, Defenders of Wildlife, (720) 943-0453

Alli Melton, High Country Conservation Advocates, (970) 349-7104, ext. 2