Conservation Groups Challenge Wasteful Dirty Energy Development

Western Colorado coal mine threatens climate, clean air


Ted Zukoski, Earthjustice, (303) 996-9622

With clean air and the climate at stake, WildEarth Guardians and the Sierra Club filed a formal challenge to a U.S. Bureau of Land Management decision authorizing the expansion of the Elk Creek coal mine in western Colorado.

With the help of Earthjustice, a public interest environmental law firm, the groups filed an appeal and petition for stay targeting the failure of the Bureau of Land Management to take into account the air quality and climate change impacts of wasteful mining operations at the Elk Creek mine east of Paonia. In January, the agency authorized the sale of 4 million tons of coal as part of the Elk Creek East coal lease. After the lease is sold, Oxbow Mining, LLC—a multinational coal company—intends to mine the coal over an 18 month period. The appeal and petition for stay seek to prevent the sale of the coal until the agency takes the legally-required “hard look” at the mine’s impacts, and at alternatives that could minimize those impacts.

The decision promises a one-two punch to the Earth’s climate because of wasteful greenhouse gas emissions, which are fueling global climate change.

First, the coal from the Elk Creek East lease will be shipped out of Colorado and burned in dozens of power plants throughout the U.S., leading to the release of more than 10 million tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide—as much as is released by more than 1.7 million passenger vehicles annually.

And second, the mining will vent at least 5.1 million cubic feet of methane daily into the air. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas with more than 20 times the heat-trapping potential of carbon dioxide. The Bureau of Land Management estimates that methane venting alone will release the equivalent of one million tons of carbon dioxide annually—about 1 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions released in Colorado.

Methane however, is not only a powerful greenhouse gas; it’s also a valuable product. Otherwise known as natural gas, methane is worth around $4,000 per million cubic feet. Venting methane at the Elk Creek East coal lease will therefore waste $7.4 million worth of gas.

Although methane must be removed from mines for safety reasons, many mining companies today actually take steps to capture and use methane to generate electricity, or, as a last resort, flare or oxidize the gas. The Bureau of Land Management refused to do anything to limit methane waste.

The groups’ appeal also challenges the failure of the Bureau of Land Management to protect public health and the environment from the air quality impacts of expanded mining. According to a 2010 notice issued by the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division, between 2008 and 2009, the company violated its air pollution permit 14 times, releasing illegal amounts of particulate matter, small particles that, when inhaled, can threaten human health.

“BLM didn’t look at the mine’s air pollution because they said the mine’s permits would protect the air. But the mine has violated those permits,” said Ted Zukoski, an Earthjustice attorney representing the groups appealing the expansion. “This is the air we breathe. BLM can’t just gloss over this mine’s pollution.”

Expansion of the Elk Creek coal mine also threatens to increase levels of smog and haze in the region, yet the Bureau of Land Management proposed nothing to address these impacts.

“The agency has failed to recognize and address the damage this coal mine extension would have on our local air quality and on climate disruption,” said Roger Singer, Sierra Club regional representative in Colorado. “This mine proposal would be a huge step backwards from the gains Coloradans made recently towards a clean energy future that moves us away from dirty coal, such as the Clean Air Clean Jobs plan.”

The groups’ appeal was filed with the U.S. Interior Board of Land Appeals in Washington, D.C. and requests that the Board grant a stay. Under federal regulations, the Board has 45 day to rule on the groups’ request for a stay.

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