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July 08, 2014

Sierra Club victory in Colorado a rebuke against coal leasing

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Sunset Trails Roadless Area in Colorado. Photo courtesy of WildEarth Guardians.

By Nathaniel Shoaff, Sierra Club staff attorney

In a victory for wild lands and our climate, U.S. District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson last week rejected Arch Coal's plans to bulldoze six miles of roads through 1,700 acres of Colorado's wild and natural Sunset Roadless Area in order to expand its underground West Elk coal mine.

While the decision is an enormous victory for protecting these precious wild lands and halts Arch Coal's coal mining plans for now, Judge Jackson's ruling also represents the first time that a coal mine has been rejected because of the failure to adequately consider and disclose the impacts that a mine would have on climate disruption.

The landmark decision, affirming a challenge brought by the Sierra Club and allies at Earthjustice, WildEarth Guardians, and High Country Conservation Advocates, could have far-reaching implications for protecting our climate from the threat of mining and burning of coal, natural gas, tar sands, and other fossil fuels.

In addition to building on the Sierra Club's recent successes establishing legal standing to raise climate arguments (1) and telling the agencies that they cannot simply ignore the Social Cost of Carbon when weighing the impacts of coal leasing, Judge Jackson squarely rejected the notion that massive coal mines would have no impact on our climate.

For years, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has used tortured economic logic to mask its willful ignorance of the tremendous harm done to our climate and people through federal leasing of more than five billions of tons of coal.

Spoiler alert: there's a direct connection between BLM's federal coal leasing program and the amount of carbon pollution disrupting our climate. Coal that's mined from federal lands is burned in coal-fired power plants; coal-fired power plants emit carbon pollution; and carbon pollution warms our planet and contributes to increasingly destructive weather events and other consequences of climate disruption (2).

Judge Jackson's ruling exposes the bogus economic assumptions underlying nearly all of BLM's coal leasing decisions, and it will help hold BLM accountable for the climate impacts of other decisions on coal and fossil fuel extraction. BLM continues to claim that if it were to deny a coal lease, that same amount of coal would just get mined from someplace else. The result, according to BLM, would be the same amount of coal mined, the same amount of coal burned, and the same amount of carbon pollution emitted from coal-fired power plants. And if the impacts to climate are the same no matter what, why deny a coal lease?

As recognized by Judge Jackson, that logic ignores basic principles of supply and demand. After summarizing BLM's economic assumption, Judge Jackson debunked it, stating:

"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 would otherwise have been left in the ground will be burned." (Slip op. at 30) (emphasis added).

Judge Jackson's point is key. BLM's topsy-turvy approach on climate has brought us a federal coal binge that is indirectly subsidizing the coal industry and worsening climate disruption. The economic principles at play are not complicated. Broadly stated: if you reject a lease and take a large portion of a commodity (here coal, but it could have been natural gas, tar sands, etc.) off the market, you decrease the supply, increase the cost, and, over the long term, decrease the use of that commodity. Because switching from coal to cleaner and more affordable energy would result in less coal mined, less coal burned, and less carbon pollution emitted, BLM's decisions do have a climate impact -- and a big one at that.

In Wyoming's Powder River Basin, BLM has approved four mine expansions that alone would dig up 2.3 billion tons of coal. These "Wright Area" leases, which have been challenged by the Sierra Club and its allies, would dump more than 3.3 billion tons of carbon pollution into our atmosphere. There too, BLM continues to hold tight to its economic fiction as a way to deny the climate impacts of its decisions.

Meanwhile, through its Buffalo Resource Management Plant update, BLM has called for an additional 10 billion tons of coal to come out of the ground over the next 20 years, all while claiming the federal coal program has no impact on our climate. By preventing private companies from mining and burning coal from federal lands, BLM can better protect our climate and public health, the waters we use, the air we breathe, and the wild places we enjoy. We cannot ignore the enormous impact that mining and burning coal will have on our climate, and with last week's decision, it’s clear that the BLM and Forest Service can't either.

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(1) See WildEarth Guardians v. Jewell, 738 F.3d 298 (D.C. Cir. 2013); WildEarth Guardians v. BLM, Case No. 11-cv-1481-RJL (D.D.C. Mar. 30, 2014), 2014 WL 1285505.

(2) For underground mines like West Elk, the climate impact is compounded by companies venting methane directly into the atmosphere during mining. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas with 86 times the heat trapping properties of carbon dioxide over 20 years. And while underground mines must remove methane to protect workers, there's no reason other than corporate profit margins that it can't be captured and used instead of vented into our atmosphere.


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