Arch Coal’s expansion of an underground coal mine in western Colorado has been halted by a federal judge, who ruled an Interior Department agency failed to consider requiring that the facility burn, instead of vent, methane gas.
The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement failed to properly evaluate the methane flaring option for West Elk, an underground coal mine operated by Mountain Coal Co., an Arch subsidiary, Judge R. Brooke Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado ruled Nov. 8. The company is looking to expand its operations into a roadless area near Somerset, Colo., that’s part of the Gunnison National Forest.
Jackson remanded the plan to allow mining in the Sunset Roadless area, scheduled to begin in January, until the Office of Surface Mining can give further consideration to the flaring alternative. Flaring involves burning—and thereby mostly eliminating—methane gas given off by mining activities, instead of just venting it, which involves directly releasing the powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.
The judge also ordered Mountain Coal to stop building roads and drilling wells in the expansion area until further analysis is conducted.
Several environmental groups, including WildEarth Guardians and the Sierra Club, sued the Office of Surface Mining over its approval of the expansion, claiming it would affect the climate and threaten water and fish resources in the Roadless Area.
The Sierra Club has received funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable organization founded by Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg Environment is operated by entities controlled by Michael Bloomberg.
The expansion calls for building 8.4 miles of new roads and installing 43 methane drainage wells. It would result in the release of about 11.9 million tons of methane into the area. Coal production on public lands contributes approximately 10% to total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
The Interior Department, Mountain Coal, and Arch Coal didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The case is WildEarth Guardians v. Bernhardt, D. Colo., No. 1:19-cv-01920, order issued 11/8/19.