In a landmark decision on Friday that could have far-reaching implications for federal coal leasing, a U.S. District Court judge ruled against the expansion of Arch Coal’s West Elk mine in Colorado for failure of federal regulators to consider the social cost of carbon in their environmental review.
The decision issued by Judge Jackson of the U.S. District Court in Colorado found that the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service overlooked the costs of carbon emissions from the mining and combustion operations associated with the mine’s expansion even though the agencies acknowledged that expanding West Elk’s operations would likely result in greater greenhouse gas emissions.
Friday’s ruling is the result of a challenge brought by environmental groups contesting three agency decisions on the Colorado Roadless Rule and expansion of the West Elk mine in the Sunset Roadless Area. This region is a part of the treasured North Fork Valley backcountry in western Colorado which abuts the iconic West Elk Wilderness and is a destination for hikers and hunters and habitat for the threatened lynx.
The agencies’ decisions would have permitted Arch Coal to expand the West Elk Mine into 1,700 acres of the Sunset Roadless Area, the bulldozing of six miles of road, and the construction almost 50 well pads for the venting of methane from the mine expansion. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and the second-most prevalent GHG emitted in the United States after carbon dioxide.
According to the decision, the BLM and Forest Service initially found that the social cost of carbon associated with the expansion could be as high as $984 million, but the agencies arbitrarily scrapped this analysis from the final environmental impact statement. However the associated benefits of the project were still included in the agencies’ analysis. The court called this error “more than a mere flyspeck.”
The ruling goes on to acknowledge that agencies are required to analyze the effects of their actions on climate change. The court noted that the BLM and Forest Service “acknowledged that there might be impacts from GHGs in the form of methane emitted from mining operations and from carbon dioxide resulting from combustion of coal produced,” and “this reasonably foreseeable effect must be analyzed.”
The decision was issued just in time before Arch Coal’s exploration activities were set to begin on July 1, and stops the expansion of the West Elk coal mine and any associated surface or below-ground activity, including bulldozing or construction, for now until the parties can agree on how to move forward.
Expanded coal leasing in the American West, particularly the coal-rich Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana, has been a hotly contested issue in recent years, with parties raising significant concerns over the climate effects of burning the coal mined in the region.
This court’s decision reminds agencies to consider climate impacts when making decisions affecting federal lands.
Nidhi Thakar is the Deputy Director of the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress.