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Gov. John Hickenlooper has become an expert at appearing to care about Colorado’s environment in front of the cameras, while quietly propping up the fossil-fuel industry behind the scenes.
Hickenlooper signed on to the U.S. Climate Alliance in July, vowing to transition Colorado to wind and solar and issuing an executive order with a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. His draft Colorado Climate Plan released in October, an update of the 2015 plan, acknowledges that coal mines are a major source of methane emissions and supports incentives to curb pollution.
His green glow even lured the lucrative Outdoor Retailer trade show to Colorado after organizers boycotted Utah and that state’s public lands-hating pols.
But Hickenlooper is paying lip service to home-grown climate pollution. The worst example is his appalling support for Arch Coal Inc.’s West Elk mine, our state’s single biggest threat to the world’s climate.
I’ve lived in Colorado since I was a toddler, and I appreciate that coal has helped power our state’s economy for generations. But as an environmentalist and attorney, I know we can’t continue to burn fossil fuels if we want to leave a livable planet for our children and grandchildren. I believe the governor understands this, too.
And yet Hickenlooper has been unwilling to stand up to the coal industry to protect Colorado’s glorious forests and the health of its citizens. Instead, the governor has worked to pave the way for the proposed expansion of West Elk mine, Colorado’s biggest industrial methane polluter. In late spring Arch Coal could start bulldozing pristine aspen and spruce fir forests to expand the mine near Paonia.
In 2016, the West Elk Mine spewed more than 16,000 tons of heat-trapping methane gas into the air — the equivalent of more than 400,000 tons of carbon dioxide. Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is a greenhouse gas on steroids, trapping about 87 times more heat than carbon dioxide.
Under the mine’s proposed expansion in the Gunnison National Forest, 1,700 acres of public lands would be leased to mine 17 million tons of coal, carve more than six miles of roads into the forest and construct up to 48 drilling pads to belch methane from the Sunset Roadless Area adjacent to the West Elk Wilderness.
All that in a beautiful, rolling landscape that provides habitat for black bear, elk, lynx and cutthroat trout.
Hickenlooper has refused to require the mine’s St. Louis-based owners to capture the potent greenhouse gas and use it to create more energy or flare it to reduce pollution. This public health threat costs taxpayers millions.
He recently backed Arch Coal’s request to reduce the royalties they pay Colorado taxpayers for the privilege of mining coal on public lands — an $8 million giveaway.
That money could’ve been used to help West Slope communities transition to alternative energy and a sustainable economic future. Instead, it will help support coal mining that reduces thousands of acres of pristine public lands to a filthy spider web of roads and well pads.
Perhaps most galling, the governor’s latest Climate Plan fails to propose reasonable controls on coal-mine methane pollution.
Here was an opportunity for him to offer a roadmap to limit uncontrolled methane emissions from coal mines, something he has required of the oil and gas industry. Instead Hickenlooper provided no solutions for reducing emissions from the largest source of methane pollution in the state, the West Elk mine.
Colorado needs innovative leadership and action to help communities move beyond coal, not more gifts to the fossil fuel industry.
We need to pay careful attention to what the governor does, not just what he says. It’s important to keep an eye on the results that follow toothless political proclamations.
Climate change is already here. But there’s still time, and I’m still hopeful. I believe the governor truly cares about Colorado and understands the urgency of transitioning to a clean-energy economy. It’s time for him to prove it.