Public Lands Update: What’s Going on in the North Fork?

Sometimes it seems that the large expanse of Gunnison County that lies north of Kebler Pass is a world away. Closed to vehicle traffic for half the year because of deep snows, Kebler Pass provides access to the Upper North Fork, a stunning landscape of bucolic ranches, mid-elevation gambel oak forests, world-renowned aspen woodlands, and boulder-strewn mountains jutting to the clouds. But this part of Gunnison County also provides two abundantsources of dirty energy: coal and natural gas.

Coal

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Most folks probably know that Crested Butte’s history is built on coal. Scattered ghost towns across the area attest to the rise – and fall – of coal in Gunnison County: Baldwin, Kubler, Floresta, Anthracite, and more. But as coal mining vanished south of Kebler Pass, it remained a potent – and polluting – force on the other side. For over 10 years HCCA has successfully challenged coal mine expansion in Gunnison County. Through our Public Lands Program, we are the only local organization working to protect the Upper North Fork’s forests, waters, and wildlife from proposals to expand coal mining.

At the center of our engagement is a proposal to allow Arch Coal Company’s West Elk Mine to expand its operations into approximately 20,000 acres of designated Colorado Roadless Area (CRA) in the Upper North Fork. Three CRAs are at stake: Sunset, Flatirons, and Pilot Knob. These wild and untrammeled National Forest landscapes are a boon to hunters, hikers, birders, and other recreationists, and sit directly upstream from the renowned orchards and vineyards of Paonia. They contain lynx denning habitat, elk and bear habitat, and their watersheds support both Colorado River and greenback cutthroat trout populations.

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Arch Coal’s West Elk Mine is the last functionally operating coal mine in Gunnison County, processing millions of tons of coal per year. At current mining rates the West Elk Mine has legal access to between 10 and 20 years of coal. But it wants more. And so the U.S. Forest Service (the federal agency managing the affected CRAs) since the mid-2000s has been seeking to exempt the 20,000-acre “North Fork Coal Area” from the Colorado Roadless Rule (CRR). The CRR generally prohibits new road building and other uses in designated roadless areas, such as Sunset, Flatirons, and Pilot Knob. But the exemption would throw out road-building prohibitions in the roadless North Fork Coal Area to allow construction of 72 miles of roads and 480 methane drainage wells to access and mine 170 million tons of coal. Mining under the exemption would release up to 130 million tons of carbon pollution into the atmosphere. Through legal channels, policy pressure, and old-fashioned activism, HCCA’s Public Lands Program has opposed this exemption that would degrade sensitive roadless lands, worsen climate change, hobble renewable energy generation, and result in billions of dollars of damage to the global environment and economy.

Thus far we’ve been successful. As part of small but effective coalition of conservation groups opposed to destroying roadless forests to access dirty coal, HCCA has prevented implementation of the CRR exemption. Since our 2014 landmark legal victory in federal court that invalidated the CRR loophole, we have continued our productive partnership with Earthjustice, The Sierra Club, and WildEarth Guardians to stop coal mine expansion in Gunnison County. But the fight isn’t over. The Forest Service is in the process of reexamining, and again seeking approval for, the CRR exemption. Completion of environmental review, originally due in early summer, has been pushed back to the fall.

Ultimately what may make or break coal mining in Gunnison County are international market forces. The coal market across the U.S. is declining for a variety of reasons – competition with cheaper natural gas, the growth of renewable energy, and a decline in exports as China and other markets reduce coal consumption. In the meantime, Arch has rewarded its executives quite handsomely during its decline.  As Gunnison County and America begin to transition to a cleaner energy economy based on renewables like solar, wind and geothermal, HCCA will continue efforts to protect public lands from coal expansion. Our local communities understand the need to transition to an economy that’s robust, diverse, and less reliant on boom-or-bust extractive industry. Together we can protect our public lands while building a brighter future!

 

Natural Gas

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Unless you’ve spent the last decade aspiring to the life of a hermitic monk you’re probably aware of the recent boom in America’s natural gas industry. From Pennsylvania to Texas to Wyoming, new technological advancements and gas-field discoveries have opened up huge areas to development. Western Colorado – and Gunnison County – are no exception. While fracking, drilling, waste ponds, and other facets of the industry have spared the lands south of Kebler Pass, the Upper North Fork is a different story. There, a mix of private and publicly owned lands and minerals are subjected to growing natural gas development pressure from two main companies: Houston-based SG Interests and Bill Koch-owned Gunnison Energy.

Our Public Lands Program continues efforts to check natural gas development on Gunnison County’s public lands and to prevent, minimize, and mitigate impacts to forests, wildlife, waters and air quality. There are currently several proposals for development with likely impacts to public lands and sensitive watersheds. The BLM is analyzing the Bull Mountain Unit Master Development Plan (MDP), a proposal for 146 natural gas wells directly upstream from Paonia Reservoir. At the same time, the Forest Service and BLM recently approved a 25-well development proposal on 32 acres of public and private lands north of Somerset.

Directly related to natural gas development in the Upper North Fork is the BLM’s May 27 announcement that it had released its long-anticipated Draft Resource Management Plan (RMP) for lands and minerals managed by the agency’s Uncompahgre Field Office (UFO) in Montrose. Once completed, the RMP will guide the management of about 675,800 acres of BLM-administered surface lands and 971,220 acres of federal mineral estate, including the public lands and minerals in the Upper North Fork. The document features a range of alternatives reflecting different visions, and seeks public review and comment to help refine the draft into a final plan that will last for decades. HCCA is engaged with our conservation partners throughout western Colorado to develop an RMP that better protects the abundant public lands and wildlife of the Upper North Fork.

 

Take Action Today!

Mountain Coal Company (MCC), a subsidiary of Arch Coal, operates the West Elk Mine. MCC is seeking the renewal of its royalty rate reduction from the BLM, a request that would reduce by 37.5% the royalties MCC would otherwise remit to federal, state and local taxpayers. MCC has not and cannot make the showing that it merits a royalty rate reduction. This is especially true in light of the fact that Arch Coal paid its executives $8 million in bonuses in January 2016. That is approximately the same amount that the State of Colorado estimated in 2012 that its taxpayers would have to give up in total under Arch’s previous royalty relief request for the same leases! Arch Coal should not be allowed to shortchange taxpayers here in Gunnison County so that the company can provide hefty bonuses to its executives.

Please contact BLM State Director Ruth Welch at rwelch@blm.gov and urge the agency to reject MCC’s most recent request for royalty reduction. Tell BLM that MCC needs no royalty rate cut to encourage it to continue operating the West Elk Mine, and Gunnison County coffers shouldn’t be shortchanged to reward a handful of company executives.