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West Elk Mine approved for 1,720-acre expansion

10 million tons of coal; projected two additional years in operation

By Cayla Vidmar

The U.S. Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) issued a release last week stating it approved the 1,720-acre expansion of the West Elk Mine in Somerset, into the Sunset Roadless Area. According to the release, the expansion would make available 10 million tons of federal coal and add two years to the life of the mine.

The news was met with contention from local environmental group High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA), which has been battling to protect the area since 2014.

The proposed expansion raised both concerns and an opportunity for a working group to come together and work on a solution for coalmine methane, a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. Matt Reed, HCCA public lands program director, writes in response to the news of the expansion, “This is disturbing in many ways.”

Reed explains his frustration, stating that the OSMRE “went straight to a decision without doing any additional NEPA analysis. There was no public notice or opportunity to comment… The Forest Service’s 2017 lease expansion decision that OSMRE just adopted was devoid of site-specific analysis, including the locations and impacts of the project’s methane venting wells.”

NEPA is the National Environmental Policy Act. One of its missions is “to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man.”

The United States Forest Service (USFS) held a public comment period in 2017 as the proposal for the expansion was moving forward.

In the years leading up to the recent decision from OSMRE, HCCA sued the USFS in 2014 when the initial proposal failed to “adequately address climate change impact,” according to Reed. HCCA won that litigation, with the court ruling “the Forest Service and BLM [Bureau of Land Management] violated NEPA in their environmental review by turning a blind eye to the project’s huge climate costs,” writes Reed. This decision kicked the proposal back to the drawing board.

But in 2018, HCCA again sued over the second rendition of the proposal, citing the USFS and BLM “underestimated or obscured the climate pollution impacts of the expansion while improperly boosting the purported economic benefits,” says Reed. HCCA lost that court ruling.

According to Reed, the main issue with the recent decision is a lack of addressing the coalmine methane issue. “This approval adds more years to the lifespan of Colorado’s largest source of industrial methane pollution, an embarrassing and unnecessary pollution source right here in Gunnison County,” Reed writes.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the West Elk Mine has emitted 4,947,303 tons of methane into the atmosphere since 2011.

In 2017, the Gunnison Board of County Commissioners submitted a letter of support to the USFS for the expansion of the mine, and included a stipulation that the owners, Mountain Coal Company, “and the county will work out an agreement to figure out what has to be done to capture methane from the mine and put it to beneficial use rather than venting it,” said then-county commissioner Phil Chamberland.

That letter was ratified from the original version, which had stated the county “cannot support” the expansion “unless” the company captured the methane gas generated by the mine.

Later in 2017, Colorado governor John Hickenlooper supported a request by the mine for a royalty rate reduction for the coal lease, which would result in the loss to the state of approximately $4 million in revenue over a five-year period. The rate reduction was granted contingent upon the company working collaboratively with Gunnison and Delta counties, the state of Colorado and other groups to explore and develop a methane capture strategy at the mine, and explore opportunities to put the methane to a beneficial use.

With that, the North Fork Coal Mine Methane Working Group was formed. This week, the group will hear response and ideas from the Bureau of Land Management for a coalmine methane leasing mechanism, a necessary step before coalmine methane mitigation of any kind can happen in the area.

Gunnison County commissioner John Messner says, “West Elk Mine continues to engage with Gunnison and Delta Counties in the North Fork Coal Mine Methane Working Group and has indicated that a plan for methane mitigation is being developed and will be shared at the upcoming meeting.”

Messner concludes that the commissioner’s previous support of the expansion was “predicated on their efforts towards a coalmine methane implementation strategy and to date I believe they are working in good faith towards that collaborative goal.”

Reed expressed his disappointment with the OSMRE decision and a lack of a formal coalmine methane solution for the “several dozen methane drainage wells” within the decision language. “The combustion of the millions of tons of coal and the release of staggering amounts of methane into the atmosphere from this lease expansion would further accelerate the damaging impacts of climate change,” Reed writes.

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