Feds Seriously Moving to Adopt Arch Coal Loophole

One would think that in the face of mounting controversy over the Obama Administration’s massive climate blind spot, the federal government would start to show some restraint when it comes to approving fossil fuel development on public lands.

Instead, they’ve done the complete opposite.  Not only that, but a new proposal from the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Interior signals they’re aiming for the worst, a scheme to sacrifice nearly 20,000 acres of wild forest lands to appease Arch Coal.

The proposal comes in the aftermath of a landmark court ruling that overturned a loophole allowing coal mining in National Forest roadless areas in western Colorado.  A dubious giveaway, the loophole opened up thousands of acres of protected lands for coal mining near the iconic West Elk Mountains.  Even worse, it opened the door for coal companies to develop methane venting wells.  Far from harmless, the venting is devastating for the climate and has already transformed public lands in the area into a de facto gas field.

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Methane venting well with West Elk Mountains in background.

Thankfully, last summer a federal judge held that when adopting the loophole the Departments of Agriculture and Interior illegally failed to account for the climate impacts of expanded mining near the iconic West Elk Mountains.  The order dealt an especially significant blow to Arch Coal, which planned to target 350 million tons of new coal mining in the area.

More importantly, it opened the door for the Agriculture and Interior Departments to get it right on climate.  Instead of deferring to the status quo and letting the fossil fuel industry get its way on our pubic lands, the order created an unprecedented opportunity for these agencies to finally say “no.”

Sadly, instead of seizing the opportunity, it appears the agencies remain intent on sacrificing our public lands at the expense of our climate.

In a notice today, the Department of Agriculture, with the Department of the Interior “cooperating,” announced it intends to restore the coal mining loophole, opening up 19,100 acres of protected National Forest lands for coal mining and putting Arch Coal’s plans back on the rails.

The proposal takes climate hypocrisy to dangerous new heights (or should it be lows?).  Not only would it pave the way for more coal mining, it stands to unleash nearly half a billion tons of carbon.  Worse, it would do so by giving away our protected public lands to a single coal company.

That latter point can’t be emphasized enough.  The only other company that could possibly benefit from the loophole is currently shut down and has no plans to reopen.  This leaves Arch as the sole beneficiary, truly making it the “Arch Coal Loophole.”

The corrupt optics aside, while it may not be blatant climate denial, giving away our public lands to a coal company sure comes close.

The fact that the Agriculture and Interior Departments have even proposed the Arch Coal Loophole is troubling (after all, it means they’re already squandering taxpayer dollars for the benefit of Arch), but hopefully they’ll come to their senses and change course.

In the meantime, check out this video to see what’s at stake on the ground in western Colorado.  It’s a few years old, but as fresh as ever.  Enjoy!

Interior Department: Carbon Costs “Misleading”

In July, the Obama Administration was called out over its utter hypocrisy in curtailing carbon pollution in the U.S.

On the one hand, the Administration says that delaying carbon clean up will cost us billions.  On the other, the U.S. Department of Interior, head by Secretary Sally Jewell, is selling millions of tons of coal in the American West and not only refusing to account for carbon costs, but defending their decisions in spite of the climate impacts.

Thankfully, we’re making some progress in reining in the Department’s unwillingness to share in the responsibility to combat climate change.

Just yesterday, a federal judge overturned a coal leasing decision in Colorado over the agency’s failure to assess the social cost of carbon emissions associated with the leasing.  The order comes on the heels of a June ruling where the court held Interior illegally refused to use the “social cost of carbon” protocol, an interagency method of assessing the cost of carbon emissions, when analyzing the environmental and economic impacts of leasing more coal.  The judge was especially perturbed that the agency touted the supposed economic benefits of more mining while completely downplaying (actually, outright denying) the climate costs, which the court noted could be as high as $1 billion (as the court observed, “in effect the agency prepared half of a cost-benefit analysis”).

Cognitive dissonance doesn’t even begin to explain the disconnect here.  What the Interior Department is doing is completely (and literally) undermining our efforts to combat climate change.  Even as President Obama empowers the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reduce greenhouse gases, Sally Jewell’s coal decisions are unleashing massive amounts of carbon.

Either President Obama isn’t really serious about curtailing carbon or the Department of Interior is completely out of line.  It doesn’t take a genius to know where the problem lies.

The federal coal leasing program has been called the “elephant in the room” that, unbelievably, has yet to be noticed.  Yet all indications are that Interior is well aware that coal leasing is detrimental to our climate.  What’s worse, everything indicates that they are deliberately turning their backs on the issue, going so far as to continue denying carbon costs.

Case in point, on August 15, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management approved 15.75 million tons of new coal mining in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming.  Coal is mined for one reason, to be burned, and when burned, this coal stands to unleash 26 million metric tons of carbon pollution (in case there’s any question about the significance of this amount, it equals the annual carbon emissions of 5.4 million cars according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s handy carbon calculator).

So what did the agency have to say about the cost of these carbon emissions?  Complete denial.

In fact, in response to concerns over carbon costs, Interior not only argued that the social cost of carbon protocol is inappropriate for assessing the impacts of coal leasing (an assertion rejected by the federal court in Colorado), but argued that such an analysis would be “unbalanced” and “misleading” (see their decision at bottom of page 2 to page 3).

It gets worse.  For instance, while the Department argued that they are not required to do a cost-benefit analysis, and therefore not obligated to assess carbon costs, they actually did prepare a cost-benefit analysis that again, only touted the purported economic benefits of mining.  In the underlying Environmental Impact Statement for the lease, they estimated hundreds of millions increased revenue and dozens of new jobs (see Environmental Impact Statement at p. 3-160).  In other words, they put together the same “half of a cost benefit analysis” overturned by the federal court in Colorado.

Adding absurdity to the mix, they assert that the social cost of carbon impacts would be “negligible” when compared to the costs of carbon from coal nationwide or globally.  Of course, no actual analysis was completed to support this “negligible” claim and, not surprisingly, they didn’t take such a big picture view when assessing the supposed benefits of more coal mining (after all, using Interior’s logic, wouldn’t the addition of dozens of jobs be “negligible” when compared to all the jobs provided by other industries nationwide or globally?).

To underscore the absurdity, assuming the 26 million metric tons of carbon is produced in 2015, this would lead to costs as low as $260 million and as high as $2.8 billion (for 2015, estimated carbon costs range from $11 per metric ton to $109, depending on the discount rate).  Put another way, Interior is actually claiming that a cost of $2.8 billion is negligible.

Topping it all off, the agency continued to stand by its claim that, “The tools necessary to quantify climatic impacts from projects such as a lease modification are presently unavailable” (see Environmental Assessment at p. 27).  Yet the federal court in Colorado affirmed that there is a tool, the social cost of carbon protocol (see ruling at p. 17).

Why would Interior argue such deceit?  It’s unclear, but the only reason for the agency to describe a social cost of carbon analysis as “unbalanced” and “misleading” is because it would show that the cost of leasing coal isn’t worth it.

Ultimately, the Department of Interior is either one of America’s most dangerous climate deniers or the they’re truly of the mind that they must lease coal at any cost.  Either way, it’s clear that the agency has no intention of stepping up to address the carbon impacts of coal leasing.

To put it bluntly, the U.S. Interior Department isn’t ignoring the elephant in the room, they’re simply trying to hide it.

We’re making progress in cutting carbon, but so long as Sally Jewell and the Department of Interior keep flouting our nation’s commitment to safeguarding the climate, it’s clear we can never fully succeed.

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Saving our climate is as easy as keeping carbon underground, something the U.S. Interior Department has yet to embrace.

UPDATE:  On October 6, 2014, WildEarth Guardians filed its statement of reasons challenging the Interior Department’s latest coal leasing plans in the Powder River Basin.  Among other things, the appeal challenges Interior’s completely arbitrary and unsupported assertion that disclosing carbon costs would be misleading.  The statement of reasons calls on the Interior Board of Land Appeals to overturn the decision and compel a rational and accurate analysis of climate impacts.

Time for EPA to Come Clean on Methane

It’s only Wednesday and it’s already been a busy week on the issue of methane, a  greenhouse gas that’s like carbon on steroids and is released extensively in the production of fossil fuels:

  • There’s been ongoing coverage of our court victory last Friday overturning Arch Coal’s plans to expand its West Elk mine and in the process vent massive amounts of methane.  That ruling invalidated a U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management approval of Arch’s plans on the basis that the costs of carbon pollution, including the costs of venting methane gas, were ignored, a big victory for the climate.
  • And this week, a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that newer gas wells being drilled into Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale are leaking more methane than wells drilled into other formations.  The study has major implications for shale oil and gas drilling and fracking across the nation, which is fast taking hold as the predominant form of oil and gas development.  Indeed, we just commented this week on the Bureau of Land Management’s plans to allow 5,000 wells to be drilled into the Niobrara shale formation of eastern Wyoming.

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Methane venting well at Arch Coal’s West Elk mine in western Colorado (click to see more pictures of what methane venting at coal mines looks like, including this video of methane venting in action)

There’s a lot going on around methane, but what’s disturbingly not being discussed is how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (and apparently other federal agencies, for that matter) are downplaying, if not covering up, the climate impacts of methane emissions.

Certainly, everybody recognizes that methane is a potent greenhouse gas, but what seems to be obfuscated is exactly how potent it is.

The measure of a greenhouse gases potency is also called its global warming potential.  In the case of methane, the Environmental Protection Agency has for many years universally presumed a global warming potential of 21, meaning that for one part of methane equals 21 parts of carbon dioxide.  But studies are consistently confirming that this estimate is too low, particularly when assessing the short-term climate impacts of methane emissions.

In fact, while studies are finding that over a 100-year period, the global warming potential of methane is more than 30 times that of carbon dioxide, they’re finding that in the short-term, methane may be as much as 105 times more potent than carbon as a greenhouse gas.

More recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (often referred to as the IPCC), probably the most authoritative (even if somewhat cautious) scientific body that is synthesizing climate information for policymakers and the public, reported methane global warming potentials under two scenarios:  the first, where climate carbon feedback is not accounted for the second, where it is.  The climate-carbon feedback factor refers to the fact that as carbon creates more warming, more greenhouse gas emissions are released.  For example, as permafrost melts, more methane is released from Arctic tundra.

Taking into account climate-carbon feedback (which is more reasonable and accurate given the very real feedback impacts of greenhouse gas-fueled warming), the IPCC reported in their most recent synthesis of climate science that methane’s global warming potential is 34 over a 100-year period and 86 over a 20-year period (you can download their report at climatechange2013.org at p. 714).  Below is the table showing the IPCC’s reported global warming potentials.

Global Warming Potential Over 100 Years Over 20 Years
Without Climate-Carbon Feedback

28

84

With Climate-Carbon Feedback

34

86

In spite of these findings, the Environmental Protection Agency continues to assume that methane’s potency is only 21 times that of carbon dioxide.

For instance, in the agency’s latest inventory of greenhouse gas emissions and sinks in the United States, which was released in April and presents 2012 data, they rely on a global warming potential of 21 (see their Executive Summary at p. ES-3).  In doing so, they report that coal mines and oil and gas operations (the fourth and first largest sources of methane in the U.S., respectively) release the equivalent of 222 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (total of 10.57 million metric tons of methane).

Yet, based on a global warming potential of 86, total carbon dioxide emissions due to methane from coal mines and oil and gas operations is actually more than 900 million metric tons, a more than four-fold difference.  

The table below shows the differences between EPA’s estimate of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from coal mines and oil and gas operations, based on the outdated global warming potential of 21,  and estimates based on the IPCC’s global warming potential factors.

Methane and carbon dioxide equivalent emissions (in million metric tons) from oil and gas operations and coal mines, based on EPA’s 2012 inventory of greenhouse gas emissions and sinks, released in April 2014, and IPCC global warming potential factors.

methane and co2e emissions

What this shows is that the climate impacts of methane are being significantly underestimated, in turn giving the impression that methane emissions from coal mines and oil and gas sources are not significant sources of carbon.  In fact, just based on methane along, this data shows that oil and gas and coal mines are the fourth and fifth largest sources of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S., right behind power plants, transportation, and industrial fossil fuel combustion.

Certainly, the Environmental Protection Agency has not outright discounted the significance of methane emissions from oil and gas operations, but they have refused to acknowledge that methane from coal mines is worthy of any agency attention.

And although the agency last fall officially raised the global warming potential of methane from 21 to 25, this is a far cry from reflecting the real short-term climate impacts of unchecked methane emissions.  Furthermore, in doing so, the agency rejected establishing a global warming potential based on a 20-year timeframe, essentially turning its back on the fact that methane’s climate impacts are more significant over the short-term, rather than the long-term.

By downplaying the climate impacts of methane, the Environmental Protection Agency is undermining the urgency that should be driving efforts to cut emissions of this potent greenhouse gas.  The result is that other federal agencies, the Bureau of Land Management notable among them, continue to drag their feet in acknowledging the need for methane reductions and the cost of delaying action.

With President Obama himself calling for methane cuts nationwide, it’s critical that the Environmental Protection Agency get it right in curbing this potent climate threat.

Fixing a Fossil Fuel Fiasco in the Forest

Amidst all the well-founded uproar over the Bureau of Land Management’s proposal to lease 30,000 acres of the North Fork Valley of western Colorado for oil and gas drilling, WildEarth Guardians has taken aim at another fossil fuel fiasco: an expansion of one of Colorado’s largest coal mines.

In an appeal filed late last week with the help of Earthjustice attorney extraordinnaire, Ted Zukoski, we joined a host of other groups in challenging the U.S. Forest Service’s November decision to allow Arch Coal to expand its West Elk coal mine.

There’s nothing good to be said about this coal mine expansion. Not only does it authorize the drilling of 48 methane drainage wells and the venting of 7.5 million cubic feet of natural gas daily, but it allows these wells to be drilled on 1,700 acres of the Sunset Trail Roadless Area, effectively disqualifying the 5,880 acre area from any future protection.

Although the decision authorizes the expansion of an underground coal mine, what it literally authorizes is the drilling of a natural gas field in a beautifully undisturbed and ecologically valuable forest (not familiar with the impacts of methane drainage wells? check out some pictures here).

It’s government waste and disregard at its worst. And the Forest Service has not only defended its decision, it’s overtly insulted anyone who would dare oppose the proposal.

But what’s really disappointing is the duplicity. That while the Forest Service readily admits and recognizes that climate change is a major threat to our nation’s forests, it eagerly approved this latest coal lease modification even though it will inevitably lead to the release of millions of tons of carbon dioxide.

Their decision authorize the mining of 10.1 million tons of coal, which when burned will release more than 15 million tons of carbon dioxide. On top of that, the Forest Service estimates the inevitable methane venting will release the equivalent of more than 500,000 tons of carbon dioxide.

The Forest Service’s response to all of this? Unbelievably, it’s to blame you and me. Read for yourself the Agency’s attempt to explain that the CO2 created by breathing and computer use somehow release more carbon dioxide methane venting and coal combustion authorized by their decision:

A comment was received asking for meaningful equivalents of the greenhouse gases released. For comparison with this amount of coal mined, each person exhales about 0.36 tonnes of CO2 per year and an average automobile releases about 5 to 8 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year. The amount of CO2 emissions from sending 32,002 email form letters on this project based on average energy (generated by coal) used by computers (and assuming their owners only had their computer on for 1 hour) and the agencies having to access, file and make them part of the project record is anywhere from 9-66 tonnes of CO2 released. However we know this is unrealistic, most of us have the computer on for 8 hours per day, up to 365 days per year. This would result in CO2 emissions from these 32,002 individuals of 26,280-192,720 tonnes per year. We’ll also assume that these people drive to work or have at least one vehicle per household for another 160,000-256,016 tonnes per year and that they are in fact breathing for another 11,521 tonnes per year. These individuals have released 171,521-460,257 tonnes of CO2 emissions in a year which is more than the methane equivalent of mining coal in the E Seam for the same period of time (see the Forest Service’s Environmental Assessment at page 51).

So much for logic and reason at the Forest Service. In the meantime, we can only hope that more level-headed minds will set the Agency straight here.

And who knows, maybe someday we can all turn off our computers and breathe easier knowing our Forest Service is actually confronting global warming, not making it worse.

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Turning off my computer will apparently save the Sunset Trail Roadless Area. Keeping the area from being drilled for methane venting is probably more likely to save the area.

No Thank You for your Comment

[Editor’s Note:  Read the latest ClimateWest update on this post here.]

It’s bad enough the U.S. Forest Service has greenlighted the expansion of a western Colorado coal mine into an undeveloped roadless area, now the Agency is lobbing contemptuous insults at the public.

Take this gem of a response from the Forest Service to somebody who expressed concerns that the, “Lease modification area is one of the best deer and elk hunting areas and would be destroyed by mining coal”:

Fall big game hunting season opportunities don‘t exactly scream of protecting deer or elk habitat as they are being chased out of it. We also believe that if you‘ve hunted this area, you‘ve probably accessed it using roads or trails associated with coal exploration or mining.

In other words, Mr. Public, the Forest Service could care less about your hunting concerns.

The venomous responses were published on pages 151-167 of an Environmental Assessment posted online on November 8 in which the Agency justified its decision to allow Arch coal to expand its West Elk coal mine into the Sunset Trail roadless area. And although the mine is underground, to get the coal, Arch plans to construct 6.5 miles of new road and 48 methane drainage drainage wells.

What is a methane drainage well? It’s basically a natural gas well, except that all the gas that these wells produce is just blown into the air. In other words, to get the coal, they first need to punch a natural gas well field into the Sunset Trail roadless area.

To say the least, the damage is a disgraceful use of public lands, especially considering the waste. Every year, the West Elk coal mine vents 7 million cubic feet of methane daily, enough to heat 34,000 homes a year. To really visualize the problem, check out our pictures of methane venting going on right now above the West Elk mine.

To boot, methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Over a 20 year period, it has 56 times the heat trapping ability of carbon dioxide. So 7 million cubic feet of methane? That’s actually equal to 3.04 million tons of carbon dioxide every year, the same amount released by 540,324 passengers vehicles (according to the EPA’s handy greenhouse gas converter).

The proposal rightfully drew critical comments from the public, such as this:

Blithely allowing coal mine expansion in one of our few remaining roadless areas…will thoughtlessly damage a pristine area just so King Coal can make another buck, at a time when man-made climate change due to burning such filthy fossil fuel is patently obvious and should be avoided at all cost. Such thoughtless action would also promote polluting coal when America needs to be building a clean energy economy ASAP. The American people are sick of being put at risk just so greedy and dirty industries can do whatever they please to turn an outrageous profit at our planet’s expense.

And the Forest Service’s response? Well, read for yourself:

Well, Ms. Jones, unfortunately the American people love their inexpensive, reliable electricity. The Forest Service also receives nominations for lease for other forms of energy development for which you too are able to apply. Many of these will require commitments of land in Roadless because that is where the water, wind, and geothermal resources exist and which will also have effects on local climate, fish, and wildlife, and include powerlines, ancillary development facilities, and roads. Unless you live and work offthe-grid, please cut your total power consumption by 49.61% immediately (US EPA’s estimate of power generated by coal). After all, these efforts begin at home. We’ll worry about the thousands of years of radio-active waste from your home state’s nuclear power generation and mining activities on federal lands required to support it in your next modified form-letter comment.

All I can say is, wow. You can agree or disagree with person who commented, but for this kind of flippant response to come from a federal agency charged with managing public resources is a bit out of line.

Unfortunately, it didn’t end there. Take these comments and responses–some snarky and some downright mean, which are quoted verbatim from the Forest Service’s Environmental Assessment:

Comment from Member of Public

Response from U.S. Forest Service

Coal is filthy and dangerous. (p. 163) Coal mining is dangerous, there‘s no doubt about that.
Enough of Colorado‘s great wilderness has already been bulldozed, detonated, mined, grazed, and plowed. (p. 165) This area is not wilderness. Additionally, it was not brought forward as an area to be considered for further planning for wilderness as long as 32 years ago. Sorry to burst your bubble, this area has also been grazed for a century or more.
We are destroying more oxygenmaking forests to produce carbon dioxide making coal. (p. 164) Might be true if the aspen in the lease area weren’t dead or dying anyway.
Shouldn’t we be turning to cleaner forms of energy? (p. 164) Probably. No Forest Service issue.
I demand you stop playing lap dog to any individual, group of corporation that seeks profit from public land use when you know such use will damage the natural resources of my land. You sicken me Richmond! If you wish to stay out of court read: …With great disrespect. (p. 166) Mr. Artley, as a retired Forest Service employee, you know the mission of the agency is multiple use and that we consider issues from multiple perspectives. Congress, not the Forest Service, mandates consideration of energy development on federal lands which is in the “interest of the United States”. We also notice that the comments you’ve submitted are not necessarily in line with either Wild Earth Guardians or NRDC whose websites you used to submit two of the three of yours. Your issues seem to be of a personal or positional nature with the Forest Service and do not reflect issues specific to the lease modification parcels at hand.
Do you people do anything but sit at your desk taking orders from industry?? How is it that you don’t seem to have any say, will power, direction about protecting our public lands from thieves, muggers and greedheads that spell out “megacorporations”? (p. 167) We spend about 80% of our time implementing policy and maintaining the balancing act which is the Forest Service’s multiple use management goals and minerals management policy (this includes both desk time and field time). The other 20% is spent sitting at our desks responding to snarky rhetorical questions and comments from environmental and special interest groups.

Now could some of these public comments have been more constructive? Certainly, but that’s no excuse for the Forest Service to respond like this, especially given the significance of this latest coal decision.

And especially given that the Chief of the Forest Service himself has recognized that climate change is a significant threat to our National Forests, the Agency’s contempt of the public in this case is, to say the least, worrisome.

Perhaps these comment responses are just a cynical office joke that got a little too far outside the office. Perhaps. But perhaps they’re also a sign of the Forest Service’s real feelings about the public and their concerns over the future of their National Forest lands and resources.

Either way, it’s a shame. The public deserves an apology, but more importantly, they deserve better stewards than this.