Proposed loophole could cause millions of tons of carbon pollution, undermine Obama administration climate goals, and degrade wildlife habitat

Denver, CO — National and local conservation groups today condemned a decision by the U.S. Forest Service to continue pressing to open National Forest roadless areas in Colorado to coal mining.

In a notice filed today, the Forest Service announced it would move forward by issuing a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) on the proposal to pave the way for mining. The proposal would re-open a loophole in the Roadless Rule for national forests in Colorado to enable Arch Coal – the nation’s second largest coal company – to scrape roads and well pads on nearly 20,000 acres of otherwise-protected, publicly-owned National Forest and wildlife habitat in Colorado’s North Fork Valley.

The loophole was thrown out by the U.S. District Court of Colorado last year because the Forest Service had failed to consider the climate change impacts of mining as much as 350 million tons of coal in the national forest. (Today’s notice reduces the estimated coal available to 173 million tons.) The Forest Service admits that re-opening the loophole could result in hundreds of millions of tons of additional carbon pollution from mining and burning the coal. That carbon pollution could cost the global economy and environment billions of dollars, according to today’s notice.

North Fork Valley coal contains large amounts of methane, a gas that, over a 20-year period, is more than 80 times more powerful than CO2 as a heat trapping gas.  The one currently operating mine that would benefit from the loophole – Arch Coal’s West Elk mine located in the North Fork Valley near Paonia – spews millions of cubic feet of methane a day into the air without attempting to capture or flare the natural gas.  Reports also indicate Arch Coal is on the verge of filing for bankruptcy.

Above is a road that was scraped into pristine national forest near the Sunset Trail Colorado Roadless Area to allow underground coal mining. Roads compact forest soils and fragment dwindling wildlife habitat. Mining in Colorado roadless forests would leave a destructive spiderweb of roads and well pads, scaring the landscape for decades.

Above is a road that was scraped into pristine national forest near the Sunset Trail Colorado Roadless Area to allow underground coal mining. Roads compact forest soils and fragment dwindling wildlife habitat. Mining in Colorado roadless forests would leave a destructive spiderweb of roads and well pads, scaring the landscape for decades.

The draft EIS’s release comes just a few weeks before President Obama flies to Paris to participate in a global summit on climate change, and just one week after the President rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, stating:

“If we’re gonna prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re gonna have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them.”

“This massive give-away to the coal industry undercuts the U.S.’s commitment to reducing climate pollution at a time when the world is looking to America for leadership,” said Earthjustice attorney Ted Zukoski, who represented the groups in federal court. “If there’s any place to keep fossil fuel in the ground, it’s here, where mining for dirty coal will release huge amounts of methane and destroy pristine wildlife habitat next to a wilderness area.”

“Lifting protections on our public lands to prop up bankrupt coal companies is absolutely scandalous,” said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program Director. “The Obama Administration needs to understand that Americans don’t want to shoulder the debt of Arch Coal so the company can trash our forests and our climate.”

“This is a big step backward for the Obama Administration” said Nathanial Shoaff, a staff attorney with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “Why would the Forest Service undermine President Obama’s climate objectives and sacrifice public lands just to prop up one failing coal company? This is further proof that the federal coal program is badly out of step with the rest of the Obama Administration when it comes to climate.”

“Ruining pristine backcountry for climate-destroying coal pollution is bad public policy,” said Taylor McKinnon with the Center for Biological Diversity. “At a time when we should be moving to clean, renewable energy, this plan anchors us to more fossil fuels. Obama should just nix it–public lands should be part of the solution, not the problem.”

“Roadless areas are important for many of the wildlife species in our state including the Federally threatened Canada lynx,” said Matt Sandler, Staff Attorney for Rocky Mountain Wild. “Sacrificing these areas to appease the interests of the coal industry is irresponsible public lands management.”

“For decades, Americans have loudly supported the landmark Roadless Rule to protect our wild forests,” said Amanda Jahshan, Wildlife Energy Conservation Fellow for Natural Resources Defense Council. “No industry should get special exemptions from these important protections, least of all dirty coal, which is a major contributor to climate change and clean air, threatening our planet and healthy communities.”

“I’ve seen first-hand the damage coal mining does to this wild forest, and it’s devastating,” said Alli Melton, Public Lands Director for Gunnison County-based High Country Conservation Advocates.  “This proposal would open the forest to intense development and scar thousands of acres of vital habitat for black bear, lynx, elk, and mule deer. The noise, the flattened habitat, the fragmented landscapes are bad for wildlife and bad for hunters, hikers, and bird-watchers who enjoy the area. The added stress from climate change on Colorado’s backcountry means the Forest Service should focus on protecting intact habitat, not slicing it up to worsen climate pollution.”

Up to an acre of forest is leveled to clear a place to drill a hole so methane can be vented. The mud pit in the bottom left of this photo was dug to aid the drilling process.

Up to an acre of forest is leveled to clear a place to drill a hole so methane can be vented. The mud pit in the bottom left of this photo was dug to aid the drilling process.

Among the National Forest lands in the crosshairs of coal mine bulldozing under the proposal is the Sunset Roadless Area, a lush aspen and spruce-fir forest dotted with beaver ponds directly adjacent to the West Elk wilderness.

The loophole would pave the way for Arch Coal to expand its underground West Elk mine. For its expansion, Arch plans to bulldoze an extensive road network and scrape dozens of well pads in the Sunset area in order to release methane within the coal below ground.

Arch Coal’s mine is located in the North Fork Valley of western Colorado, where coal mining has declined over the past several years, mirroring state and national trends. Competition with cheap natural gas and renewables and the adoption of regulations to protect public health from toxins including mercury that are emitted during coal combustion have contributed to the recent downturn. Coal production in Colorado last year fell to a 20-year low. Twice as many Coloradoans now work for one wind turbine manufacturer as work in coal mines in the state.

Of the three mines in North Fork Valley, Oxbow’s Elk Creek mine closed in 2013 due to a fire and a second, Bowie, laid off nearly half of its workforce after a major purchaser failed to renew a contract.

The Forest Service is seeking comments on its draft EIS until January 15, 2016.  During a prior public comment period this spring, the Forest Service received more than 100,000 comments opposing the coal mine loophole.

Background:  In 2012, the Forest Service adopted the Colorado Roadless Rule, which generally banned road construction on four million acres of the state’s most wild, remote forest lands.  The rule, however, contained a number of loopholes, including one permitting road construction on 19,000+ acres of roadless forest north and east of Paonia, Colorado to benefit future coal mining proposals there.

In 2013, the Forest Service approved Arch Coal’s proposal to build six miles of road and scrape 48 pads for methane drainage wells in the Sunset Roadless Area, a project made possible by the coal mining loophole.

Conservation groups sued to halt the project in part on the grounds that the Forest Service failed to disclose the extent of carbon pollution generated by mining and burning the 350 million tons of coal made possible by the Colorado Roadless Rule. In June 2014, a federal district court found for the groups, ruled that the Forest Service broke the law by sweeping climate pollution impacts under the rug, and vacated the coal mine loophole.

The court’s ruling left the door open for the Forest Service to reinstate the loophole if the agency undertook a new analysis that adequately disclosed the climate pollution the loophole would cause. The Forest Service announced last April that it would seek to revive this loophole. The Forest Service’s draft EIS is the next step in the process; the agency will permit public comments until January 15, 2016 and may revise its analysis in a final EIS before issuing a decision, which is not expected until Spring 2016.

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VIEW SCENIC PHOTOS OF THE SUNSET ROADLES AREA

VIEW EARTHJUSTICE’S PHOTO-ESSAY ON THE DAMAGE COAL MINING DOES TO THIS FOREST