Colorado Roadless Coal Exception

For over 30 years, TGG has prepared numerous studies evaluating Environmental Impact Statements and Environmental Assessments for energy-related activities. In May 2015, TGG released an expert report entitled Comments on Scoping Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) Rulemaking for Colorado Roadless Coal Exception #46470. TGG’s Comments were presented to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service on behalf of the Sierra Club.

In 2015, the USDA Forest Service was preparing a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for “the Proposed Action:” the reinstatement of the North Fork Coal Mining Area exception to the Colorado Roadless Rule.

This exception would allow for temporary road construction for coal exploration and/or coal-related surface activities in the 19,100-acre North Fork Coal Mining Area. This North Fork Coal Mining Area exception (also known as the Colorado Roadless Coal exception) was estimated to result in an additional 1.4 million tons of annual coal production, averaged over the 15-year analysis period (2012-2026). The other alternative considered was the “No-Action Alternative:” the continuation of management to vacate the North Fork Coal Mining Area exception (in other words, continued disallowance of road construction for coal activities).

TGG was retained by Sierra Club to comment on scoping of the Roadless Rule SEIS, and specifically how the SEIS should consider employment and other economic impacts. TGG’s made the following comments:

  1. To provide a proper analysis of the economic and environmental impacts of the Proposed Action, it is essential that the SEIS undertake an updated and expanded analysis of how the Proposed Action could affect coal mine development and operations (and thus coal production), for the entire time period affected by the Proposed Action.
  2. Any SEIS consideration of the economic benefits from coal production must be balanced and also consider the economic costs from coal production. Put more simply, to the extent that the Proposed Action is bad for environment, it is also bad for the economy. The SEIS must appropriately consider economic costs as well as benefits, rather than focus on benefits and fail to consider costs.
  3. The SEIS must be based on credible and consistent assumptions regarding the energy supply alternatives to North Fork Valley coal production) and consider both the costs and benefits of the alternatives.
  4. Future coal production may be economically challenged, such that price per ton is low and profitability marginal. Thus, if the Proposed Action leads to increased coal production, the added production may be low value with low associated economic benefits. Meanwhile, this added production could have large adverse environmental impacts (and associated adverse economic impacts).

Context and Update: The 2001 National Roadless Area Rule (Roadless Rule) protects nearly 50 million acres of roadless areas in US National Forests from road construction, reconstruction and logging. The protected areas provide habitat for wildlife species, safe public drinking water supplies and recreational opportunities.

In late 2016, despite wide public opposition, the USDA released a Final Rule, which reinstated the Colorado Roadless exception in the North Fork Coal Mining Area. Environmental groups have continued to oppose this exception for years, and it was twice overturned – most recently in March 2020.

The United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled the Forest Service violated federal environmental laws when it allowed the exception to the Colorado Roadless Rule, which in turn permitted the expansion of the West Elk coal mine. In defiance of the appeals court ruling, Mountain Coal (a subsidiary of Arch Coal and owner of the mine) bulldozed a new mile-long road through the area to expand the West Elk mine in June 2020. The US Forest Service failed to stop this construction. In late October 2020, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals blocked further construction of the West Elk coal mine. During the same week, the Trump Administration repealed the Roadless Rule in Alaska’s Tongass Forest, the largest National Forest in the country.

In December 2020, Earthjustice and a coaltion of environmental groups, tribes and fishers filed a lawsuit to challenge the Trump Admistration’s decision to exempt the Tongass from the Roadless Rule. In March 2021, a coalition led by the state of Alaska filed to defend the exemption of the Tongass from the Roadless Rule.

As part of his Inauguration Day executive orders (issued January 20, 2021), President Biden ordered the Department of Agriculture to review the Trump Administration’s rule to exempt the Tongass National Forest from the Roadless Rule. This implies that the Forest Service is taking the first steps in potentially restoring protection to the Tongass National Forest. In light of Biden’s ambitious public lands agenda, environmentalists are calling for the Roadless Rule to be strengthened and expanded to better protect public lands.