Plan to open forestland for mine venting called ‘outrageous’

Even as Gov. Bill Ritter Thursday thanked U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for allowing road building around a coal mine in relatively unmolested Colorado forestland near Paonia, environmental groups and sportsmen harshly condemned the decision for exposing forest but also for flying in the face of smart business efforts to combat global warming.

flickr: pauldineen

News came in the form of a release issued by Vilsack’s office detailing 14 road-building exemptions for projects in lands included in the Clinton administration’s 2001 Roadless Rule.

The lone Colorado project is in the area around Oxbow Mining’s Elk Creek Mine on the North Fork of the Gunnison River. The project is intended to allow Oxbow to drill methane vents for the safety of miners. Methane buildup is suspected in the explosion at a Massey West Virginia coal mine last month that killed 29 miners.

The release from Vilsack first identified the wrong mine. West Elk Mine, also in the Paonia area, was later corrected to reference Oxbow’s Elk Creek Mine, but not before Ritter and others alternately praised and condemned the decision and its ramifications for the wrong mine.

In explaining the decision, Vilsack essentially said his hands were tied by other laws and that the projects would have been allowed anyway under the 2001 rule.

“USDA is committed to protecting roadless areas in our National Forests because of the critical importance of these areas to our natural resources, wildlife, and outdoor recreation,” Vilsack said in the release. “While the decisions announced today allow for mineral exploration in roadless areas, not only does USDA have limited authority to approve or disapprove these activities, but these actions are consistent with the 2001 Roadless Rule.”

Vilsack referenced the 1872 Mining Law, which even the Clinton administration concluded preempted subsequent laws in that “reasonable access” has to be offered to minerals on public lands. Although in Colorado the exemption concerns mining safety, 12 of the 14 projects approved Thursday simply open up areas for minerals exploration.

Mining jobs and wasted methane

Gov. Ritter celebrated the decision for economic reasons. “Coal mining is the critical industry in the Paonia area,” he said in a release. “The North Fork Valley accounts for 40 percent of Colorado’s annual coal production, more than $450 million in sales and 1,000 high-paying jobs. We are very grateful that Secretary Vilsack listened to our concerns and agreed to let this project move forward.”

The Ritter administration recently submitted its own Colorado Roadless Rule to Vilsack, asking for road-building exemptions for three coals mines in the area, including both the Elk Creek and the West Elk mines. The Bush administration tossed out the 2001 Clinton rule in favor of a state-by-state petition process, and only Colorado and Idaho went that route.

Denver-based WildEarth Guardians blasted Vilsack’s decisions because of its disregard for methane gas as a heat-trapping greenhouse gas contributing to global climate change.

WildEarth’s Jeremy Nichols said the U.S. Bureau of Land Management estimates the Elk Creek mine vents 7.4 million cubic feet of methane a day, or about $10.8 million a year worth of natural gas at current prices. His organization unsuccessfully sued to compel the BLM to require coal companies to either capture or burn off the methane.

“The secretary’s decision exacerbates this reprehensible waste at the expense of Colorado’s wildlands,” said Nichols. “This is beyond outrageous. We’re rewarding wasteful business by allowing them to ravage our public lands.”

Future laws and past laws

Even the U.S. Senate acknowledges the need to begin alleviating the impacts of non-carbon-dioxide gases such as methane, which is 20 times more potent than C02 as a greenhouse gas but dissipates more rapidly in the atmosphere, offering more bang for the mitigation buck.

The Kerry-Lieberman climate change bill introduced Wednesday – the American Power Act – contains a section called “Achieving Fast Mitigation,” which addresses ways to reduce methane emissions, as well as black carbon soot and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

The Senate bill (pdf) would expand the U.S. Methane to Markets Partnership to reduce global methane emissions and promote research for capturing methane for energy consumption and also reducing emissions, according to the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development. Coal companies have argued methane capture is too costly and impractical.

Sportsmen’s groups used Thursday’s decision by Vilsack to highlight the need for reform of what they feel is an antiquated 1872 Mining Law that promoted the rapid development of the West but needs to be changed to reflect the modern push for preservation of public lands in the facing of increasing domestic energy production and minerals extraction.

“Hard-rock mining activities help support our country’s economy, and sportsmen support responsible development of public-lands minerals,” said Steve Moyer of Trout Unlimited, which is a member of Sportsmen United for Sustainable Mining. “Yet Secretary Vilsack’s inability to regulate such development – even on lands with outstanding value for fish, wildlife and activities such as fishing and hunting – cries out for the need to effect reasonable reform of antiquated legislation such as the 1872 mining law.”

Bills have been introduced in both the House and Senate to reform the 1872 Mining Law.

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About the Author

David O. Williams

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail
and Real Aspen.

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