The clock is ticking down on a court-ordered environmental assessment that could shut down the Colowyo coal mine outside Craig, Colorado. On Thursday, Senator Cory Gardner defended the mine, on the Senate floor.
“We have 80-some days to make a decision that could effect the lives of 220 people,” said Gardner. “For a community that’s the size of the town I live in, 3,000 people or so, to lose 220 jobs means economic catastrophe.”
Gardner added that the mine pays $2 million a year in federal taxes and another million in state-severance tax. The coal goes to Tri-State Generation’s nearby coal-fired power plant.
“Tri-State is one of those cooperatives that provides electricity to some of the poorest areas in Colorado, the areas that can least afford it,” said Gardner on the floor. “This decision will increase the cost of electricity and those costs will be born by people who can least afford it. People on low incomes, fixed incomes and people in rural areas of our state…”
Since the decision came down in May, Gardner and Western Slope Congressman Scott Tipton have been calling on Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell to take every conceivable action to save the mine — from allocating the necessary resources to do a very quick environmental review to appealing the ruling.
“Without remarking on the reasoning of the Court contained within the decision itself, the result nonetheless creates adverse precedent with other suits pending, which would harm not only Colowyo and the town of Craig, but potentially numerous other mining operations and towns in other states as well,” Gardner and Tipton wrote.
As it stands, the ruling would require the Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement [OSMRE] to consider the downstream climate impact of burning coal when they approve new mines on federal land.
Gardner is not the only politician jumping to defend the Colowyo, which is one of the largest mines in Colorado. Governor John Hickenlooper also issued a letter in favor of saving the mine, including offering to partner with the OSMRE to speed up the environmental review.
Democratic Senator Michael Bennet also wrote in support of the mine. While he didn’t suggest that the ruling be overturned, Bennet did say that the OSMRE should seek an extension if they can’t get the review done on time, so as to avoid closing the mine.
“Obviously, compliance with our environmental laws should be taken very seriously, but I am gravely concerned about the repercussions that the closing of this mine would have on the economy of northwest Colorado and the livelihoods of many families in my state,” Bennet wrote to Jewell.
With the ruling taking effect on May 8, the OSMRE has until September 5 to complete the redo on the mine’s environmental impact assessment. That means taking public comment and, as ordered by the judge, considering how much carbon pollution will be produced when the coal is burned.
A spokesman at WildEarth Guardians, the environmental organization that filed the successful suit alleging that the Interior violated environmental protection laws because it failed to do a thorough assessment and take public comment when it approved the mine back in 2007, asserted all the political chatter is overblown.
“It’s ideological at this point, and sure everybody likes to come to defense of poor miners. It’s useful for scoring political points, but it’s dangerous and frankly wasteful,” said Jeremy Nichols at WildEarth. “This is not new, the idea that the government is supposed to look into the reasonably foreseeable environmental consequences of their actions.”
Nichols added that the Highway Department considers traffic and emissions when it builds a freeway, even though, like a mine, it doesn’t approve the exact use of its product. He also pointed out that the Interior is on track to complete the review in time to keep the mine open.
Christopher Holmes at the OSMRE confirmed that the Interior takes its responsibility seriously and is “making its best effort” to complete the review on-schedule.
“The bureau recently held a successful public outreach meeting in Craig, Colorado on June 10, where more than 600 people provided nearly 450 comments that will help guide OSMRE’s development of the Environmental Assessment,” he told The Colorado Independent. “The bureau will continue to solicit and accept comments through June 15, 2015.”
Even if the mine is approved to stay open, Nichols said environmentalists will continue to advocate for a move away from fossil fuels, and that does mean continuing to target mines like the Colowyo.
“Let’s get serious here,” said Nichols. “If we’re talking about cutting carbon emissions it means moving away from coal. Does that mean we make it happen tomorrow? No. It means we come up with a thoughtful transition plan and then seriously make it happen. We want to shine light on the fact that the Department of the Interior hasn’t been thinking about that at all. We can’t transition away from coal if they continue to rubber stamp every mine and give the industry every incentive to keep digging.”
Image via Flickr.