FRISCO — A court ruling issued in Colorado on Friday could nudge government agencies toward making more honest assessments of the climate impacts tied to the projects they approve for federal lands.
The June 27 order from U.S. District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson prevents Arch Coal Inc. from expanding coal mining into a roadless area southeast of Paonia. For detailed maps, aerial views and onsite photos of the area, view this report posted by WildEarth Guardians.
The judge also called into question the legality of the Colorado-specific roadless rule for national forest lands in the state, finding that the rule didn’t adequately assess how the rule affects climate where it carves out exemptions for mining.
Jackson said the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management must overhaul their analysis of the proposed exploration and mining on 1,700 acres of rolling aspen-covered foothills at the foot of the West Elk Wilderness — land that sustains wild trout, black bears, elk and endangered lynx.
The coal mining proposal has been disputed since 2010, when Arch Coal first asked to expand mining in the vicinity of the existing West Elk mine. In 2013, WildEarth Guardians, the High Country Conservation Advocates and the Sierra Club sued the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to block the expansion.
When those agencies approved the new mining earlier that year, they didn’t come close to complying with federal environmental laws that require full analysis and disclosure of environmental impacts — including the climate impact of any related carbon emissions, Judge Jackson said.
“It is arbitrary to offer detailed projections of a project’s upside while omitting a feasible projection of the project’s costs,” Judge Jackson wrote in his order, which won’t stop coal mining in the area. Arch Coal has an 8 to 10 year supply in areas already approved for mining, so there won’t be any immediate effect on mining jobs. But in a statement provided to the Colorado Independent, the company said the ruling will complicate long-term planning.
“We are disappointed in today’s ruling. We believe that the ruling contains several serious errors,” said Arch Coal, spokesperson Kim Link. “While concerning, today’s ruling will not necessitate any immediate changes at the mine. Coal mining requires complex, long-term planning and today’s ruling complicates our efforts in that regard. We are still analyzing parts of the ruling and evaluating our options,” Link said, referring to the possibility of an appeal.
Forest Service and BLM officials declined to comment citing the potential for more litigation.
Despite the fact that there’s already established case law requiring climate reckoning as part of environmental studies, federal agencies have been cavalier in how they meet that obligation, said Jeremy Nichols, a conservation expert with WildEarth Guardians, a national group advocating for conservation of public lands.
Especially in the case of Arch Coal’s plans in the Sunset Roadless Area southeast of Paonia. Federal officials failed to do any meaningful analysis of what it means for the climate to mine and subsequently burn 350 million tons of coal — a basic calculation that should be included in the review of any such project, according to Earthjustice attorney Ted Zukoski, who argued the case on behalf of conservation groups.
Friday’s ruling came just in the nick of time for the classic slice of Colorado mountain backcountry, with bulldozers set to roll on to the land July 1. The mining leases in the area have been hotly contested since they were first proposed in 2010.
“We’ve been tussling over this for five years. It’s great news for a really cool part of Colorado,” said Nichols, explaining that the court ruling makes it clearer than ever that federal land managers must start accounting for climate impacts. “This idea that there’s no cost to carbon … The judge said that argument’s not going to fly,” Nichols said.
Looking at it in a positive light, he explained that, by hitting the reset button, the court is giving federal land managers a chance to give climate impacts the proper consideration they deserve.
“These federal agencies could set a new tone for how this is addressed,” Nichols said, adding that national leadership from President Obama on climate change should help guide agencies in that direction.
“Environmental laws already require agencies to think hard about the harms associated with climate change, as well as the economic benefits to local communities,” Zukoski said. “This decision means that these agencies can’t bury their heads in the sand when confronting the very real impacts of climate change,” he added.