Obama's Blind Spot: Coal Gone Wild in the West

Recent decisions help coal mines at expense of climate, Colorado wildlands

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On the Obama administration’s second Earth Day, we can look back on some change we can believe in: oil and gas leases near national parks in Utah suspended, a glimmer of progress on slowing the destruction of rivers and streams in Appalachia by coal mines, the beginning of EPA’s commitment to slow global warming from car tail pipes.

But 15 months in, the administration appears to have at least one glaring blind spot: how to reduce the environmental destruction from coal mining in the West – both on the ground and in the atmosphere. 

While the East is typically thought of as Coal Country – think West Virginia and Pennsylvania – just under half the coal burned in the U.S. comes from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana, and from a smattering of mines in Colorado and Utah.  And unlike the East, the vast majority of coal in the Rocky Mountain West is owned by the federal government.  Which means Uncle Sam gets to decide when, where, and how much is mined.

And given that coal mining can destroy wildlife habitat, and that burning taxpayer-owned coal is a huge contributor to global warming, the Obama administration should be all over this issue, working to ensure that it’s more environmentally friendly.

Sadly, that’s not true.  At least not yet.  Two decisions made by the Obama administration this month show that business as usual in the western coal fields is undermining the president’s environmental agenda.

First, on April Fools Day, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved a lease of U.S.-owned coal that will result in the release of more than 600 million tons of CO2 over about a decade. When burned, the coal will produce about 1 percent of all greenhouse emissions in the U.S. 

Given that it’s federal coal, one should think the enviro-friendly Obama administration would be tripping over itself to account for, and figure out how to reduce the impact of this huge release of CO2. After all, because the US government owns the coal, federal regulators are in a position to leverage their authority to limit the impacts from global warming.

And Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who oversees BLM, issued direction last year proclaiming that his department was "taking the lead in protecting our country’s water, land, fish and wildlife … from the dramatic effects of climate change," and pledging to "change how we manage the land" to address global warming.

But these words apparently didn’t mean much to BLM in Wyoming. BLM essentially ignored the impacts of global warming in its environmental impact statement. And so, one of the biggest decisions the Obama administration will ever make on climate change was to do nothing to control or reduce its impacts, and almost nothing to even account for it.

Second, the Obama administration on April 15 started the process of approving coal leases under the West Elk roadless area in Colorado. Lease owner Arch Coal’s West Elk Mine will have to remove methane through vents drilled into the coal seam from on top.  And that means the West Elk roadless area will be bulldozed and scarred by miles of roads and drill pads.  (You can call these roads "temporary" if you want; but once built, they will be in operation for years.  Forest Service scientists have repeatedly concluded that temporary roads have long-lasting, damaging impacts to hydrology, habitat and other values).

So the Obama proposal would essentially kiss goodbye nearly 2,000 acres of the West Elk roadless. 

This proposal – which would give rights to the coal company to bulldoze roads and drill pads in an unspoiled aspen and conifer forest — is one the Obama administration says will likely have "no significant impacts."

It’s a particularly heart-breaking plan because the roadless area is fantastic wildlife habitat. Giant spruce are found there, and habitat for lynx. Elk bugle in the fall, and the casual observer can easily spot bear claw marks scarring aspen trees 20 feet off the ground. And, while the roadless area is directly adjacent to the West Elk Wilderness, the wilderness, at least where it meets the roadless area, is a nearly vertical cliff. Not exactly the most hospitable habitat for bears, lynx, or elk.

It’s true that when he was asking for your vote, his campaign promised that: "As president, Barack Obama will fight to protect roadless areas on Forest Service lands from all new road construction." From ALL new road construction.  Some, perhaps naively, took his campaign promise literally.

These two poor decisions – decisions that conservationists will likely challenge in the court of public opinion and maybe in a courtroom – highlight Obama’s blind side.  If we make enough ruckus, maybe the Obama administration will have opened its eyes to this problem by the time its third Earth Day rolls around.


Ted was an attorney in the Rocky Mountain regional office from 2003–2018. He protected wilderness, roadless areas and the planet's climate on behalf of conservation groups in the Four Corners' states.

Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain office protects the region’s iconic public lands, wildlife species, and precious water resources; defends Tribes and disparately impacted communities fighting to live in a healthy environment; and works to accelerate the region’s transition to 100% clean energy.