Colowyo Carping Conceals Credible Climate Concerns

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.

As the Grand Junction Sentinel’s Charles Ashby reports, a much-anticipated confrontation between backers of a northwest Colorado coal mine and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell this weekend didn’t go off with quite the bang expected:

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell reassured northwest Colorado officials and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., that the U.S. Department of the Interior will complete work on a study needed to keep open the Colowyo coal mine.

“We believe the best way to deliver certainty to the Colowyo mine and the people who work there is to fix the deficiencies,” Jewell told more than a dozen county commissioners, city councilors and others at the Glenwood Hot Springs Lodge on Friday night. “I’m confident we’ll do it within the 120-day deadline.”

A Sept. 6 deadline looms for an Interior Department agency, the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement, to complete work evaluating the mine’s contribution to global warming.

The study was required by U.S. District Judge R. Brooke Jackson, in a case in which an environmental organization, WildEarth Guardians, challenged the agency’s approval of the mine, which employs 220 people from Moffat and Rio Blanco counties

“We feel we are ground zero for your department,” said Moffat County Commissioner John Kinkaid.

Ever since a federal judge ordered the Department of the Interior to complete a required environmental assessment of the effects of expanded coal mining at two mines near Craig that supply a major coal-fired plant there, ruling that Interior failed to follow environmental analysis procedures under the National Environmental Policy Act, local politicos and energy-industry benefactors have been irate about the possibility that a judge could overrule the expansions retroactively, jeopardizing several hundred mining jobs.

The potential loss of 220 jobs at the Colowyo mine in northwest Colorado amounts to the equivalent of 50,000 jobs in Denver, he said.

Dirk Kempthorne, George W. Bush.

Dirk Kempthorne, George W. Bush.

We’re not sure what kind of wacky math Moffat County Commissioner John Kinkaid is using there, but let’s take a look at the actual ruling from Judge R. Brooke Jackson that’s causing all this supposed uncertainty:

The Court declares that [Office of Surface Mining] violated NEPA by failing to notify the public of and involve the public in the preparation of the Colowyo and Trapper EAs and by failing to notify the public once the EAs had been completed and the [Findings of No Significant Impact] had been issued. OSM also violated NEPA by failing to take a hard look at the direct and indirect effects of the increased mining operations before determining that there would be no significant impact on the environment. The Secretary of the Interior violated NEPA by approving both of these mining plan modifications in spite of these defects.

There’s a big piece of the story of these mine expansion approvals and the subsequent lawsuit against them that’s missing from most news reports: the expansions environmentalists sued over were approved in 2007 by George W. Bush-era Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. Incidentally, this was the same year that Kempthorne was awarded the “Rubber Dodo Award” for the distinction of having protected the fewest endangered species of any Interior Secretary in American history. Like his predecessor Gale Norton of Colorado, Kempthorne and the Interior Department under Bush were repeatedly criticized, and eventually sued, for disregarding crucial environmental considerations when making decisions about energy development.

Such as whether or not expanding coal mines in western Colorado would hurt the environment? Suddenly this story starts to make a very different kind of sense, and the politicos demanding the process be appealed and/or short-circuited don’t look so altruistic.

Since the ruling in May, energy industry mouthpieces have been shrieking at the top of their lungs about the possibility of a few hundred coal mine jobs being lost if the Colowyo and Trapper mines were to close, demanding President Barack Obama’s Interior Department appeal this ruling that the previous administration’s Interior Department broke the law. For reasons that appear quite sensible with all the facts in view, Obama’s Interior Department declined to do so, and is instead working to properly complete the required assessment in accordance with NEPA. Coal industry supporters have tried to make this about the environmental group that filed suit, even trying to organize a boycott of companies that support the group in question like New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins.

Well folks, if you can think past the wall of contrived weeping and gnashing of teeth, it looks like a very legitimate concern is being raised here–and a court ruling that agrees does not mean it’s time to boycott one of Colorado’s best breweries. The environmentalists involved with the suit say they don’t want the mines shut down, at least not tomorrow–they want the environmental assessment that approved their expansion to be conducted in accordance with the law. And that’s what the Interior Department says it wants, too. According to Secretary Jewell, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

So…shut up and let it happen.

36 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. Progressicat says:

    The potential loss of 220 jobs at the Colowyo mine in northwest Colorado amounts to the equivalent of 50,000 jobs in Denver, he said

    I'm betting I could find 49,780 folks who'd disagree with that.

    • Moderatus says:

      he's referring to the impact of the loss of that many jobs on a town like Craig. It's completely accurate, sorry if people in the city don't understand 

      • Progressicat says:

        And if those were 220 jobs at Wild Earth Guardians headquarters in Craig, you wouldn't give two shits.  Stop pretending you care about people and not coal.

        • PKolbenschlag says:

          Coal?  Do you mean 'gold'?


          CAMPAIGN 2016:

          Coal industry begins opening wallet to presidential hopefuls

          Manuel Quiñones, E&E reporter

          Published: Tuesday, July 21, 2015

          More than a year before the 2016 presidential election, coal industry interests have begun opening their wallets to what is emerging as another make-or-break race.

          • MichaelBowman says:

            In the 2006 election cycle the Colorado Rural Electric Association gave the entirety of their political donations to Beauprez; Since then, the world has moved on and Colorado has one of the most aggressive RPS in the nation. They (CREA) miscalculated the shifting politics both at the state level and nationally.  So, instead of benefitting directly from the billions of dollars in wind and solar developments built in their service territory by Xcel, they have fought this advance damn near every step of the way – which included the 2011 purchase of the Rio Tinto mine and pouring tens of millions in to the failed Holcomb project.  

            Just when are they going to accept the personal responsibility of their failed series of decisions regarding coal? 

            • Duke Cox says:


            • PKolbenschlag says:

              Now with the recent FERC ruling regarding my REA getting us out from under the TriState stranglehold, Colorado's REAs are suddenly even more poised to lead on our coming power/energy revolution.  

              • MichaelBowman says:

                That was a great ruling by FERC – we rural electric consumers who have zero interest in being chained to the proposed Holcomb power plant or that pig-in-a-poke hole in the ground called ColoWyo owe DMEA a debt of gratitude. If every rural electric in the U.S. had half the cojones they do we'd be drowning in new opportunity.

                I doubt Moderatus has any clue that Tri-State or the local coop has access to literally billions of dollars for new development at USDA-RUS. Solving the Craig employment concerns would take about two days if they really wanted to solve the problem. 

            • Moderatus says:

              These are real jobs held by real people with families. You can't deflect that away by talking about global warming.

              • PKolbenschlag says:

                I don't care what you think. 

              • Progressicat says:

                And where were you while millions (not hundreds) of jobs in manufacturing left to go overseas?

                Those were real jobs held by real people with families. You can't deflect that away by talking about free trade.

              • vanbarbee says:

                Yes let's ignore the hundreds of millions of jobs and hundreds of millions of lives we are talking about sacrificing because coal is more important than humanity…

              • Let me try…

                How many people will die prematurely if we fail to correct our path on global warming? According to a 2012 study, that number is already 400,000 per year and could rise to 700,000 per year by 2030. In addition to that, let's talk jobs: climate change, according to the study, is responsible for a 1.6% drop in worldwide GNP – $1.2 trillion dollars per year – and could account for twice that by 2030.

                The US accounts for 16.16% of all CO2 emissions, and Colorado emits 1.69% of the country's CO2. Colorado alone accounts for 1092 deaths attributable to global warming, and $595,000 in lost GNP. Per Year

  2. Moderatus says:

    Why did Wild Earth Guardians wait so many years to file suit? This ruling could pull the rug out from under working people who thought they were playing by the rules. That's why DEMOCRATS like Hickenlooper and Bennet called on the Interior Department to appeal.

    Colorado Pols doesn't represent the mainstream, not even mainstream Democrats.

    • MichaelBowman says:

      Give some real job creator (someone who has adapted to the 21-at century and not one who thinks that dinosaur dung should even be a 'thing' in this modern day) the subsidies this industry is gaming and we'd create a 'net' 200+ jobs in that region.

      Get a clue.

    • A decent question on the timing. The Colowyo mine was only one of seven mine plan approvals challenged. The Colowyo mine plan was the oldest of these, while the newest was in 2012, less than a year before the suit was filed (which was Feb 2013).

      Here's my layman's guess… At the time of the filing, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals had just ruled that the EPA had the authority to regulate stationary sources of Carbon Dioxide. Armed with the ruling and the accumulated shortcomings of years of insufficient reviews and review notifications coming from the Western regional office, the group felt they had both the weight of "pattern and practice" violations and, at long last, recognition at the Appellate Court level of CO2 issues.

      • MichaelBowman says:

        When Wester Fuels Tri-State bought that pig-in-a-poke, the executives at Rio Tinto were smiling from London to Perth.  This might prove to be the most disastrous asset acquisition in the history of Tri-State; if any sunlight were ever shone on that transaction (which there won't be) there would be a lot of raised eyebrows.  

        Buying this and now whining because they can't have their way reminds me of the story of the young man who murdered his parents and then plead mercy from the court because he was now an orphan.

        Congress could do us all a favor and find a way to buy out these holes in the ground, retrain, create new job opportunities locally – and let us move on.  We've just retired the 200th coal plant this week under the Beyond Coal campaign (out of the 500 that were targeted); China has turned a corner – and their Holcomb, KS power plant is never going to be built.

        This industry is the buggy-whip-maker equivalents of Henry Ford's day. But not for the false hope the useless Republican leadership in Congress keeps gibing these G&T execs (Hang on! Change is coming!  We're taking the White House in 2008!  2012!  2016! ).

        They decision making processes are akin to someone with arrested development. 



      • taterheaptom says:

        You and your Occam's and using sense and logic.  Bah! NO! I say… It's a conspiracy. Obama-Mexican-Caitlyn Jenner-ISIL-Sally Jewell!   

        Anyone want Lindsey Graham's cell number?  

  3. vanbarbee says:

    If I may, his math seems to be off. 220 workers for Moffat and Rio Blanco counties combined (the mine is about half-way between Meeker and Craig so one could assume they live somewhere within either) is 1.5% of the working population out there. Denver metro under the same percentage comes out at 29k. No idea where he's getting 50000 from.

    • vanbarbee says:

      Kerry Donovan (D, SD-05) actually put forward a bill in January that would've provided emergency assistance to rural communities hit by sudden job losses to help those workers get back on their feet. It seems that it was postponed indefinitely in a Republican controlled senate committee…

    • gertie97 says:

      But those 220 people pull in big bucks for that corner of the state, upwards of $70,000 per, plus overtime. Plus medical. Plus retirement. Outside of a very few bank presidents, local doctors, the city and county managers and school superintendents, nobody else is getting that kind of dough or benefits. Jobs like these drive small-town economics, when a small town is lucky enough to have them. The companies that employ them provide huge chunks of donations to community non-profits, from the food bank to the little league. Contractors, who pay far less than the mines do, still do business in Craig and Meeker and produce more payroll than anybody except the school district and the combined payroll of all the federal, state and municipal agencies. Comparing raw numbers doesn't come close to describing the economic impact. of the mines and power plant.

      • vanbarbee says:

        So then numbers aside, we're left with a handful of high paying pollution-heavy jobs under a company that repeatedly broke regulations. If anything those miners should be upset with their employer that they didn't conform to the law. 

        • gertie97 says:

          Nope. They're scared. If their jobs go away, so do their houses. Craig, unfortunately, is the power plant and the mines. Without them, there's nothing left, not even a very cheap bedroom community for Steamboat without schools.

          Yes, someday coal will go away. Perhaps by then the state, or feds, might pay big bucks to entice a similar employment-sized and salary-paying company to go to Craig. If anybody has that magic answer for resource-based western Colorado, I'm all ears.

          • No doubt. But that doesn't make their jobs worth saving over the costs of global climate change, nor does it make them immune to the proper Federal reviews.

            If you want to contest this, I suggest you read today's headlines. Climate scientist James Hansen and 16 co-authors have released a report today that says we've reached a tipping point, and that sea level rise on the order of 10 feet will happen within the century. That would decimate many of the world's most vital costal cities, or cost tens of billions of dollars in mitigation. The time is now or never – no more dithering because "it could hurt someone".

            • gertie97 says:

              PR, I'm not contesting it, just saying there should be compassion and compensation for those in Craig. Vague promises of retraining without the prospect of similar employment doesn't cut it. The rural West has been used and abused by outside interests for years.

              • How is this different than the end of any other industry? We didn't compensate the residents of Leadville for the shutting of the Climax mine, nor residents near Uranium mines around the country. We aren't compensating areas where the oil and gas boom has gone bust (for the 2nd or 3rd time). And when coal mines play out (and new mines are not approved) in the Appalachians, we haven't paid the residents of Kentucky and West Virginia…

                Coal mining might be a way of life in Craig – might in fact be the lifeblood of the entire city – but while we can always be compassionate about the plight of regions of the country hard-hit by economic conditions, I can't argue for special treatment for Craig over any other spot in the nation.

                The fact is, there won't be similar employment for those miners. $70,000 per year isn't coming to their pocketbook after the mine finally closes, whenever that might be. Not even a solid manufacturing job is likely to pay that much these days.

                • Diogenesdemar says:

                  It is too bad that Craig has always seemed to be time out of place.  

                  Maybe 50 years from now it could become a sort of Western-Slope Williamsburg — a living history museum of rural western redneckery, myopia, and boom/bust nearsightedness.  

                  Right now, however, there's still so much of that marvelous heritage available, at shorter travel distances, on the eastern plains.  But, some day, you just wait . . . 



          • taterheaptom says:

            Sally said they're gonna dot their t's and cross their i's and do the job they ought to have done in the first place.

            While the workers are scared, and we need to be thinking of retraining because the realignment we are seeing in the power and energy sectors is far far far larger than this little brush fire (in the scheme of the change that is actually happening here); but the politicians riling them up by saying embracing coal should be their future forever more amen, are ones that do deserve to have aspirsions cast upon them.  Its the extractive industry that has shat on the west again and again, after all.


  4. mamajama55 says:

    Nice sensible post, Pols.

    vanbarbee is correct – There is a plethora of aid for these guys IF they end up laying off miners.

    But the primary drivers on this are not environmental, but economic. Coal is losing its place in the energy economy, because there are so much less expensive ways to generate electricity.

    The Colowyo mine will probably still be mining coal for years, but less and less as other industries come on board.

    Desperately trying to prop up coal serves no one; not the miners, not the towns, not the environment.


  5. PKolbenschlag says:

    It is also the case that many conservationists argued that the Forest Service must consider the Social Cost of Carbon in its roadless rule exemptions for coalmines in Colorado; and that the USFS ignored that advice to its detriment, and to the detriment of workers at West Elk left without certainty.  (The USFS is redoing that NEPA as well–the exemption began under the Bush Administration but was continued and finalized under Obama).  Lesson: don't neglect agency obligation to consider impacts of major federal actions, including the detrimental costs associated with climate change.  Its the law, passed by Congress, upheld by the courts.  

    (PS: Coal's problems aren't due to Obama, they are due to market, economic, environmental and energy realities).  

    • MichaelBowman says:

      You're 'PS' nailed it.  The War on Coal is geologic and economic in nature, driven by technological advances.  We don't farm our land any longer by devoting one-third of our farm to hay and oat production so we can feed our horses that pull our plows.  

      We’re not going to power a 21st-century economy with dinosaur dung.

      • PKolbenschlag says:

        Think what our state could accomplish if the GOP put this much effort into building the future rather than propping up the past (or rather propping up their sugar daddies at the expense of the future).  

        • MichaelBowman says:

          We've managed to accomplish a lot since 2006 in spite of them, but to your point: Imagine what we could do if they were on board? If anyone in Craig thinks the industry will be charitable to them when they finally cut-and-run, they might school themselves on the Patriot Coal model, a blue print for the industry.  Only the neo-cons could come up a name that in effect lets them walk away from their promises and obligations through a series of shell-game transactions.  It is so Trump-esque…

          The tragedy of all of this is the national rural electric association and the coal industry have a lot of clout in DC with both sides of the aisle.  If they wanted to create policy to let this industry die (as it should and is) and find ways to compensate shareholders and pensions funds so they could remain whole – that could be accomplished.  That would mean they would have to cede the argument that global warming is a hoax – and that keeping the coal in the ground would be a public, even global benefit. Politically, no small task.  Quantifying their reserves and offsetting the emissions from said reserves and putting a price on carbon that reflected that benefit would resolve the problem.  And for less money than the cost overruns alone we're going to appropriate on the next useless fighter jet.

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