For Colorado coal industry watchers, mining safety not a top concern

Colorado’s coal industry, the ninth-most productive in the nation in 2008, is under fire from politicians and environmentalists but not, as is the case this month in West Virginia, for safety reasons.

Colorado coal miner completing paperwork for black lung screening. (Flickr: Niosh)

The fallout from the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion that killed 29 miners in West Virginia on April 5 – and revealed a pattern of ongoing intimidation and denial by Virginia-based Massey Energy – has had ripple effects throughout the industry. Federal officials, from local offices on up to the White House, have been scrutinizing coal-mining operations.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration this week released a list of 57 potential problem mines that drew a small army of inspectors last week. Only one Colorado coal mine – the Foidel Creek Mine near Oak Creek in Routt County – made the list. Results of the inspection are not yet available.

Colorado’s coal production of just over 32,000 short tons a year pales in comparison to West Virginia, which produces more than 157,000 tons a year. Wyoming tops the list at nearly 468,000 tons a year or 40 percent of the nation’s production.

Although Colorado ranks in the top 10 in production it has not had a major mine accident since an explosion killed 15 miners at the Dutch Creek No. 1 near Redstone in Pitkin County in 1981.

Zeroed in on emissions

Instead of zeroing in on safety issues, Colorado politicians from both parties have been focusing on emissions from Colorado’s older, coal-fired power plants. Despite Gov. Bill Ritter’s “New Energy Economy” that seeks to boost the state’s renewable energy portfolio to 30 percent by 2025 (using natural gas as a bridge fuel), the state still generates more than 65 percent of its electricity by burning coal.

Earlier this week, Ritter signed into law the rapidly crafted Clean Air Clean Jobs Act, which requires Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility, to shut down or retrofit several coal-fired power plants on the Front Range so that they burn natural gas, which is 50 percent cleaner than coal but more expensive to produce and distribute.

The fast-tracking of that bill, which brought together the state’s powerful natural gas industry, Xcel and state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, has been criticized by some Republicans and Colorado mining representatives who say coal was left out in the cold.

State Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, whose district includes the Foidel Mine near Oak Creek, voted against the bill because he said it would destroy the state’s coal-mining industry.

“We have a saying in northwest Colorado that when the wolf and the coyote and the sheep get together to decide what’s on the menu, the sheep doesn’t turn out in such good shape,” White told the Denver Post last week.

Three Republican senators did vote for the bill, including former gubernatorial candidate Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, the Senate minority leader whose district is rich with natural gas. Penry co-sponsored the Clean Air Clean Jobs Act because of its potential to create drilling jobs. He largely rejects the climate change benefits of reducing coal consumption.

Roadless Rules

Penry and state Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, circulated a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack late last week urging the Obama administration to accept the recently submitted Colorado Roadless Rule, which would allow road-building exemptions for coal mining in roadless areas of Colorado’s 4.2 million acres of federally owned public lands.

One of the reasons cited was the need for roads in order to drill vents to release methane gas, which is what federal officials believe built up and exploded earlier this month at the Upper Big Branch Mine.

Several Democrats signed Penry’s letter, and Democrats including U.S. Sen. Mark Udall are supportive of the Colorado Roadless Rule. Some scientists and conservationists, however, remain highly critical of the rule and favor the 2001 Clinton Roadless Rule, which was tossed out by the Bush administration and has been tied up in court for nearly a decade.

“To the best of my knowledge, nothing in any roadless rule right now, whether it’s the Colorado rule or the Clinton rule, is preventing any of these mines in the North Fork Valley [of the Gunnison River – the state’s coal-mining hotspot] from doing what they want to do right now,” said Jeremy Nichols, Denver-based climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians.

Instead, Nichols said Colorado’s coal industry should be more focused on the bigger picture nationally, especially given the potential for federal climate change legislation and tougher EPA regulation of emissions cited by proponent of the Clean Air Clean Jobs Act.

“If anything’s going to be an issue for these [Colorado coal] mines, it’s going to be climate policy,” Nichols said. “What’s the future of coal here? Not only do you have the coal coming out of the ground and being burned in coal-fired power plants, but the release of methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas in and of itself, also is a big deal.”

Some Colorado conservationists have been pushing the BLM to require Colorado coal mines to either capture or flare methane in order to mitigate the venting of the gas, which is 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

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