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Commissioners work to ratify letter regarding Arch’s mining expansion

Methane control is the goal

By Toni Todd

At a work session this past Tuesday, Gunnison County commissioners initially agreed to disagree on a letter of support for Arch Coal’s request to expand by 1,722 acres its current land lease with the United States Forest Service.

The disagreement came from the inclusion of a mandate to capture and utilize, flare or otherwise contain more of the methane currently escaping from the West Elk Mine.

That mandate prompted commissioner Phil Chamberland to withhold his approval of the letter. By the end of the work session, it looked like the letter would be sent with two commissioners’ signatures, rather than three.

After the meeting, however, the three agreed to work toward a consensus on the wording of the letter, so all three can feel comfortable signing.

The commissioners all agree they would like to see methane better controlled in North Fork area. The point of contention came when Chamberland expressed concern over the economic feasibility of the capture process, and said he was hesitant to stand firm on methane capture as a condition of his support.

“Your letter is basically saying that you’re not going to support what you’ve supported since 2002,” he said to fellow commissioners Jonathan Houck and John Messner.

“It isn’t us saying, ‘Go on and make this [methane capture] happen or we’re not going to support this,’” said Houck.

“You can’t tell me this letter doesn’t say what it says,” Chamberland said. “This letter says unless they capture the methane, we won’t support the expansion.”

Houck suggested the relationship between Arch Coal and the county should be a partnership. Local and state governments, he added, have a responsibility to do what’s right in light of climate change, and what’s right by their constituents who care about this issue.

Chamberland’s position is that, despite progress with renewable energy, those technologies are still developing, and coal is still a primary source of power in the United States.

“From a climate perspective,” he said, “this extension won’t make a difference because the coal that would have come out of this [mine] will come from somewhere else.”

“I find that reasoning flawed,” said Messner. “Every step you take gets you to the end. Just because it’s a small step doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take it.”

“We’re elected by the citizens,” said Houck, saying the majority of Gunnison County voters are concerned about the impact of fossil fuels. “In this last election, John and I heard constant discussion about coal and climate change. These are issues that resonate with our community. Arch Coal is a part of our community. I get that.”

“I disagree when you say the majority in our community is concerned about climate change,” said Chamberland. “Those who do find it a concern are [just] more active.”

“All of our economy is connected to water,” countered Houck, saying that just because people don’t specifically cite human-caused climate change doesn’t mean they aren’t concerned. Houck said he hears from constituents worried about water resources, fire danger, beetle kill, increasing frequency and duration of droughts, and more. “I’m hearing it from conservatives and liberals.”

Messner said he would have appreciated more time on the agenda to discuss the issue, and the letter.

“You can talk about it and talk about it,” said county manager Matthew Birnie. “You’re not going to get there.”

As if to prove Birnie wrong and to give Messner the additional conversation time he’d wished for, the commissioners agreed to tinker with the language of the letter together. They’ll ratify it at their next meeting regardless of whether they reach consensus, but are hopeful they can do it with the signatures of all three commissioners.

As previously reported in the Crested Butte News, in addition to Arch Coal’s request to expand its lease, the company is also invoking the Colorado Roadless Rule exemption for coal mining in that expanded area. Their plan is to explore the newly leased acreage, and extract what they find, with the hope that it will allow them to continue mining in the North Fork for a few more years.

Arch representatives have said, however, they don’t envision operations lasting more than a decade, given the depressed market for coal and the trend toward renewable energy.

The commissioners have also drafted a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) contesting Arch Coal’s request for a royalty rate reduction. These royalties refer only to a limited area of the West Elk Mine’s current operations, where a rate reduction was approved for 2012 through 2015, but has not yet been mined, so a new request and approval is required.

Royalty rates determine the money returned to the community for the privilege of extracting resources from public land. The request was to reduce the royalty rate from 8 percent to 5 percent for what’s called the E-seam, a small section of the mine on BLM land. The county contends that Arch Coal and the BLM must prove the rate reduction is necessary for successful mine operations in the E-seam.

According to the letter, which quotes case precedent, “BLM must be able to find there is a reasonable probability operations would cease or development, recovery or conservation of the resource would be jeopardized before it can even consider exercising its discretion to grant relief.”

The resource referenced here is coal. The letter contends the BLM has not met that obligation. A copy of the letter will also be sent to Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper.

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