U.S. Forest Service moves toward permitting more coal mining in Colorado’s North Fork Valley

Roadless rule exemption at issue in federal permitting process

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A U.S. Forest Service proposal to permit more coal mining in Colorado would unleash huge amounts of heat-trapping greenhouse gas pollution.

Staff Report

The U.S. Forest Service wants to update a public lands rule that would re-open the door for new coal mining on about 20,000 acres in south-central Colorado’s North Fork Valley, near Paonia. The agency this week posted a federal register notice seeking comment on a proposal to reinstate the North Fork Coal Mining Area exception to the Colorado Roadless Rule.

The proposal comes about a year after a federal court set aside the exemption after finding that the Forest Service failed to disclose greenhouse gas emissions associated with potential mine operations and the combustion of coal from the area. Find the federal register notice and information on commenting here.In an updated environmental document, the agency now says that the coal mining operation would unleash between 1.3 million and 6.6 million tons of greenhouse gases, depending on the level of mining activity. Burning the coal would result in between 12.3 million to 36.6 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate activists opposed to more fossil fuel extraction on public lands pointed out in a press release that the proposal would undermine President Barack Obama’s intentions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

North Fork Valley coal contains large amounts of methane, a gas that, over a 20-year period, is more than 80 times more powerful than CO2 as a heat-trapping gas.

“If there’s any place to keep fossil fuel in the ground, it’s here, where mining for dirty coal will release huge amounts of methane and destroy pristine wildlife habitat next to a wilderness area,” said Earthjustice attorney Ted Zukoski.

“This is a big step backward for the Obama administration,” said Nathanial Shoaff, a staff attorney with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “Why would the Forest Service undermine President Obama’s climate objectives and sacrifice public lands just to prop up one failing coal company?” Shoaff said. “This is further proof that the federal coal program is badly out of step with the rest of the Obama administration when it comes to climate.”

In its rulemaking notice, the Forest Service said the proposal represents an effort to balance roadless area conservation with the State of Colorado’s interest in maintaining coal production, deemed economically important to the region.

Coal mining is on the decline nationally and in Colorado, where production last year fell to the lowest level in 20 years due mainly to competition with cheap natural gas and renewable energy. Twice as many Coloradoans now work for one wind turbine manufacturer as work in coal mines in the state.

The Forest Service is seeking comments on the draft EIS for 45 days, or until Jan. 4, 2016. During a prior public comment period this spring, the Forest Service received more than 100,000 comments opposing the coal-mine loophole.

Background
In 2012 the Forest Service adopted the Colorado Roadless Rule, which generally banned road construction on 4 million acres of the state’s wildest, most remote forest lands. The rule, however, contained a number of loopholes, including one permitting road construction more than 19,000 acres of roadless forest north and east of Paonia, Colo., 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 district court found for the groups, ruled that the Forest Service broke the law by sweeping climate pollution impacts under the rug, and vacated the coal-mine loophole.

The court’s ruling left the door open for the Forest Service to reinstate the loophole if the agency undertook a new analysis that adequately disclosed the climate pollution the loophole would cause. The Forest Service announced last April that it would seek to revive this loophole.

The Forest Service’s draft EIS is the next step in the process; the agency will permit public comments until January 4, 2016 and may revise its analysis in a final EIS before issuing a decision, which is not expected until Spring 2016.

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