On June 27, 2014, a federal court cited climate change as a major reason for rejecting federal agencies’ approval of Arch Coal’s plans to bulldoze roads through the pristine Sunset Roadless Area wilderness in Western Colorado.
The permits issued by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the US Forest Service between 2012 and early 2013 authorized the leasing of 10.1 million tons of coal under 1,700 acres of the Sunset Roadless Area, which would expand Arch’s West Elk Coal Mine.
In July of 2013 Earthjustice on behalf of Sierra Club, High Country Conservation Advocates, and WildEarth Guardians, filed a suit to overturn these agencies' decisions on the grounds that they had failed to adequately consider the environmental impacts of the proposed actions.
Today the U.S. District Court found the agencies’ decisions to be arbitrary and capricious on the grounds that, among other flaws, they failed to consider the climate impacts of the mine on several accounts. The Court stated specifically in its decision that the environmental analysis approved by BLM inadequately disclosed the effects of GHG emissions resulting from the proposed lease.
For years, BLM has relied on the faulty assumption that approving mining leases is climate neutral since denying a new mine would ultimately result in another mine ramping up production in its absence. However, the Court’s decision today overturned this reasoning, “the production of coal in the North Fork exemption will increase the supply of cheap, low-sulfur coal. At some point this additional supply will impact the demand for coal relative to other fuel sources, and coal that otherwise would have been left in the ground will be burned." (Opinion at 30)
As a result of today’s decision, the Court enjoined any road construction in the Roadless Area. Arch’s bulldozers had been slated to begin work next week, July 1.
This case represents a major victory for the Beyond Coal Campaign and points the way for analysis of climate change impacts for future coal mining leases.
“BLM's federal coal leasing program has a massive impact on our climate and public health, affecting the waters we use, the air we breathe, and the wild areas we enjoy. For years, BLM has been telling the public that its individual coal leasing decisions--even those approving hundreds of millions of tons of coal--have no impact on our climate. That assumption is out the window. This decision means that just saying there’s no impact doesn’t mean there’s no impact,” said Roger Singer, Senior Organizing Manager with the Sierra Club in Colorado.
The West Elk coal seams are some of the gassiest in the nation. They require Arch to drill natural gas wells above the coal seams to vent explosive methane gas, which is a powerful agent of global warming. According to the Forest Service, the planned methane venting will release the equivalent of 1.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide every year, equal to the greenhouse gas emissions from 250,000 passenger vehicles.
To view the existing damage to the wilderness area at the mine site and the existing methane venting above West Elk coal mine click here.
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