Denver— WildEarth Guardians and the Sierra Club are seeking to overturn a U.S. Bureau of Land Management decision authorizing the expansion of the Elk Creek coal mine in western Colorado.
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“This is a dirty energy disgrace,” said Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Program Director for WildEarth Guardians. “Instead of seeking clean energy solutions, the Bureau of Land Management is just rubberstamping whatever the coal companies put in front of them.”
Nichols and his associates should be now more encouraged by the BLM decision to reconsider approval of the mine expansion, which came last week. The agency asked the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA) to remand its environmental assessment (EA) and decision to approve expansion of Oxbow Mining’s Elk Creek coal mine near Somerset. The IBLA granted that request and vacated the BLM’s January decision approving the expansion.
Earthjustice, a public interest environmental law firm, assisted the groups in filing an appeal and petition for the stay, targeting the failure of the Bureau of Land Management to take into account the air quality and climate change impacts of wasteful mining operations at the Elk Creek mine east of Paonia.
In January, the Agency authorized the sale of 3.9 million tons of coal as part of the Elk Creek East coal lease. After the lease is sold, Oxbow Mining, LLC—a multinational coal company—intends to mine the coal within 18 months. The appeal and petition for stay seeks to prevent the sale of the coal.
The groups say the BLM decision promises a one-two punch to the Earth’s climate because of wasteful greenhouse gas emissions, and offer an explanation of how:
First, the coal from the Elk Creek East lease will be shipped out of Colorado and burned in dozens of power plants throughout the U.S., leading to the release of more than 10 million tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide—as much as is released by more than 1.7 million passenger vehicles annually (see Coal-fired power plants fueled by Elk Creek Mine data here).
And second, the mining will vent 5.1 million cubic feet of methane daily into the air. Methane is a potent greenhouse with more than 20 times the heat-trapping potential of carbon dioxide. The Bureau of Land Management estimates that methane venting alone will release the equivalent of one million tons of carbon dioxide annually—1% of all greenhouse gas emissions released in Colorado.
Methane however, is not only a potent greenhouse gas, it’s also a valuable product, Nichols points out. Otherwise known as natural gas, methane is worth around $4,000 per million cubic feet. Mining the Elk Creek East coal lease will therefore waste $7.4 million annually.
Although methane must be removed from mines for safety reasons, many mining companies today actually take steps to capture and use methane to generate electricity, or, as a last resort, flare the gas. In their decision, the BLM refused to do anything to limit methane waste and described climate.