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Feds put brakes on coal-mining leases, draw heat, praise in Colorado

January 16, 2016, 5:55 pm
Coal mining in Wyoming (Wiki commons).

Coal mining in Wyoming (Wiki commons).

Editor’s note: A version of this story first appeared in The Colorado Statesman:

The U.S. Department of the Interior on Friday announced a three-year halt to new coal-mining leases on federal lands while it reviews its royalty and leasing program, a move that drew quick condemnation from the U.S. congressman whose district includes the most mines in Colorado.

“This decision reeks of contempt for rural America and for the most vulnerable Americans who will suffer as electricity prices increase and the reliability in the grid decreases,” said Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, whose district includes the state’s entire Western Slope. “We will continue to fight to protect Americans from the president’s war on affordable energy.”

In a press release, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the halt in new leases and review of federal royalties, which are paid to states where coal is mined on federal lands, won’t impact existing leases, and that companies can continue to mine reserves already under lease. It’s estimated those reserves will allow current production levels on federal lands for 20 years.

At least one Western Slope politician hailed the move. Carbondale Mayor Stacey Bernot, whose father was a coal miner, praised Jewell’s decision in a prepared statement.

“Current rules for coal mining on public lands are antiquated and do not reap a fair return for taxpayers,” Bernot said. “My community, once known for coal mining, has transitioned in the last three decades away from coal. Subsidizing coal is not the answer; assisting communities in transitioning, as Carbondale was forced to do, is what is needed for western communities.”

Other Western Slope politicians say the federal government needs to take steps to facilitate the export of Colorado coal to Asian markets and stop advancing policies such as the Clean Power Plan that are putting the industry out of business.

“The coal industry is having difficulties all over the U.S. because of our policies and a whole lot of reasons,” said state Sen. Ray Scott, whose district includes some of Colorado’s coal country. “Something’s got to change at the federal level before a whole lot can change at the state level.”

Interior Secretary Jewell said she’s putting the brakes on new leases to review how coal mining on federal land, which accounts for over 40 percent of the nation’s overall coal production, fits with the administration’s more aggressive stance on climate change in President Barack Obama’s second term.

“We haven’t undertaken a comprehensive review of the program in more than 30 years, and we have an obligation to current and future generations to ensure the federal coal program delivers a fair return to American taxpayers and takes into account its impacts on climate change,” Jewell said in a press release.

R.J. Harrington of Louisville, Colorado, who’s president and CEO of Colorado-based Sustainable Action Consulting PBC and a member of Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), said in a prepared statement that the review will boost Colorado’s growing renewable energy sector.

“The broken and outdated federal coal program was in desperate need of attention, and modernizing it will expand our economy while protecting our environment,” Harrington said. “Now’s the time to quickly transition from dirty to clean, renewable energy sources.”

Friday’s announcement follows the news earlier this week that Arch Coal, one of the nation’s largest mining companies, is filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The company is seeking permission to expand its West Elk Coal Mine on U.S. Forest Service land near Somerset, Colorado, on the state’s Western Slope.

Colorado Mining Association President Stuart Sanderson said there will be no immediate impact to operations at West Elk, which is the state’s most productive mine with more than 5 million tons mined in 2015, but he added the expansion is still critical.

“The issue of immediate concern to the future of mining at West Elk and other North Fork coal mines is not that the mine’s parent company has to seek the protections afforded by Chapter 11,” Sanderson said, “it is in securing access to additional coal reserves to facilitate continued operations to meet market demand.”

But Conservation Colorado Executive Director Pete Maysmith released a statement on Friday calling for Gov. John Hickenlooper and the Forest Service to put a stop to the expansion plan.

“The West Elk Mine project would create a massive new source of methane vented directly into our atmosphere, wiping out at least half of the methane reductions the state stands to achieve through the [new] oil and gas rule [curbing methane emissions],” Maysmith said. “We believe approving a coal mine expansion for a bankrupt company in a roadless forest is misguided.”

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is the editor and co-founder of RealVail.com and has had his awarding-winning work (see About Us) published in more than 75 newspapers and magazines around the world, including 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), the Anchorage Daily Press (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Boulder Daily Camera, the Casper Star Tribune (Wyoming), the Chicago Tribune, Colorado Central Magazine, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), Colorado Newsline, Colorado Politics (formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Colorado Times Recorder, the Cortez Journal, the Craig Daily Press, the Curry Coastal Pilot (Oregon), the Daily Trail (Vail), the Del Norte Triplicate (California), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Gazette, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, Explore Big Sky (Mont.), the Fort Morgan Times (Colorado), the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), the Kingman Daily Miner (Arizona), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the Las Vegas Sun, the Leadville Herald-Democrat, the London Daily Mirror, the Moab Times Independent (Utah), the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), the Montrose Daily Press, The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, the Rio Blanco Herald Times (Colorado), Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), the Salt Lake Tribune, SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Sky-Hi News, the Steamboat Pilot & Today, the Sterling Journal Advocate (Colorado), the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Health Magazine, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail, Westword (Denver), Writers on the Range and the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

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