The U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Department of Agriculture have reinstated an exception to Colorado’s roadless rule, which will reopen nearly 20,000 acres in the Gunnison National Forest to potential coal mining.
The Forest Service says a new, supplementary Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) addresses the deficiencies in a prior EIS that led a federal judge to vacate the exception in 2014. But environmentalists say the new impact statement has demonstrated quantifiable climate impacts so severe that the exception should remain off the books permanently.
Since it was established in 2012, Colorado’s roadless rule has prohibited the construction of roads and the harvest of timber on 4.2 million acres of National Forest Land statewide. But the rule also contained an important exception: Temporary roads were allowed on 19,700 acres of Gunnison forestland situated over rich, valuable coal deposits in the North Fork Valley. That exception allowed Colorado’s West Elk Mine, owned by St. Louis-based Arch Coal, to apply for leases to mine and transport the coal underneath that would otherwise be inaccessible. In 2012, Arch Coal received approval for the modifications of two of its existing coal leases in order to mine under a total of 1,700 acres of this area.
But before mining in the area began, an alliance of environmental groups appealed the approval, alleging that the Forest Service had approved the expansion — and granted the roadless rule exception — illegally, without a complete and proper EIS. One of their main complaints was that the impact study failed to adequately consider the exception’s effects on climate change.
In 2014, in an unexpected ruling, U.S. District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson sided with the environmentalists. He ruled that the Forest Service had violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to quantify the climate impacts of both the West Elk Mine expansion and the roadless rule exception itself. Judge Jackson vacated the exception — leaving the rest of the roadless rule in place — and the Forest Service set about addressing the problems.
Monday’s decision demonstrates both agencies’ certainty that the problems within the original EIS have been addressed. “We have consulted with the best available science and worked collaboratively with our cooperators and the public to get us where we are today,” says Lawrence Lujan, the press officer for the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain office.
The new EIS estimates that extracting and burning all of the more than 170 million tons of coal within the North Fork Valley exception area will emit the equivalent of 443 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, an amount roughly equal the annual energy use of almost 50 million homes. Given that, critics say, the Forest Service never should have reinstated the exception.
“They’re fouling their own nest here, and they know it,” environmental attorney Ted Zukoski told The Independent. Zukoski, who works for EarthJustice, represented environmental groups like WildEarth Guardians and the Sierra Club in the original suit. He says that the Forest Service has demonstrated a willingness to spend big money mitigating the impacts of climate change — a recent report authorized almost $50 million to protect trees from climate-related impacts like pine beetle kill — but is effectively allowing activities that will make climate change more severe.
Kathy Welt, a senior environmental engineer for West Elk Mine, says that the issue of the roadless rule exception has been “plagued with misinformation” from the start. She says that the climate change impacts, for example, assume that all of the coal will be mined, which she says is highly unlikely. “The only area that we are pursuing at this time is this 1,700 acres to the south,” she says, referring to the coal lease modifications which have already been submitted. Welt can’t estimate the amount of coal within the entire exception area because West Elk has “never been allowed to enter it to explore.” She says that based on adjacent mining, “we believe there is potential coal there,” but cannot be sure how much.
The Forest Service agrees, writing in its final report that “These estimated emissions are conservative and likely overestimate potential greenhouse gas emissions because the analyses assumed all coal in the North Fork Coal Mining Area would be recovered…which is unlikely ever to be reached.”
The United States has had a national roadless rule since 2001. That rule, which prohibits the construction of roads and the harvest of timber on 58.5 million acres of National Forest System lands across the country, faced attacks throughout the George W. Bush administration, with the former president canceling the rule in 2005. A federal court reinstated the rule in 2006, but the then-Undersecretary of Agriculture also invited state governors to pass their own rules instead. Colorado, along with Idaho, took the undersecretary up on his offer. What resulted was a statewide rule that offered less protection for national forests than the national policy.
The Forest Service’s Lujan says that reinstating the roadless rule exemption “strikes an appropriate balance between conserving roadless area characteristics and addressing the state’s interest in not foreclosing opportunities for exploration and development of coal resources in the North Fork Valley.”
Welt says that reinstating the roadless rule exception is good news for communities that depend on coal. “We hope that these additional reserves will be available to us to mine and to provide royalty revenue to the people of the United States and coal resources to the people,” she says. She also stressed the struggles that the coal industry has faced in recent years. West Elk is “the only surviving mine” now that the nearby Oxbow and Bowie mines have both closed.
“We’ve got a long road to go, but I’m very pleased,” she says.
According to Welt’s estimates, West Elk mine currently employs about 250 people, having just hired 22 new employees after laying off more than 100 people last summer. Still, she says, the potential for growth is limited. “We’re not going to open up a new mine. We’re going to try our best to survive and be prosperous and have employment for the people and provide for our community,” she says.
Though it took a court ruling to vacate the exception, there is no legal review process required to reinstate it, Zukoski acknowledges. As he puts it, “The National Environmental Policy Act requires that agencies take a hard look at impact before making a decision, but it does not mandate what decision the agency can make.”
But that doesn’t make him any less disappointed in the outcome. “The Forest Service concluded that leaving the roadless rule without the loophole was the environmentally-preferred alternative — and then they chose the most damaging alternative,” he says. “Now we know that the Forest Service does not have a consistent position on climate change, and that they will roll over and play dead in the interest of the mining industry when they should be protecting the interests of Colorado forests and the people of the United States.”
Zukoski says EarthJustice intends to “fully participate” in the environmental review process for West Elk’s two existing lease modification permits.
The reinstatement was published in the Federal Register on Monday. It will become effective 60 days later, on Feb. 17.
Photo credit: Alexander G, Creative Commons, Flickr