Something similar has happened in Colorado now, although this case involves a federal judge and a small group of vocal environmental activists. As this edition of Coal Age was going to press, U.S. District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson canceled Arch Coal’s expansion plans for its West Elk mine into the Sunset Roadless Area, near Paonia, Colorado. The wilderness area is controlled by the U.S. Forest Service, yet Jackson said it failed to consider the expansion’s effect on “climate change.” The U.S. Forest Service approved the expansion plan in 2012.

This decision has to be an extremely frustrating experience for Arch Coal, as this would be the second time it has had an existing permit revoked, the other being the Spruce No. 1 permit in West Virginia. The primary concern voiced by the more informed environmental groups is that the degasification wells would vent methane into the atmosphere, when it could at least be used to generate energy.

The good news is that West Elk has minable reserves and this ruling will only affect the mine’s long-term plans. With the exception of the obstructionists, it could also give all of the stakeholders an opportunity to reach an equitable solution. While many in the coal business might find it hard to believe that these groups could agree on any terms, it has happened at the Elk Creek mine, which is located relatively close to West Elk. Oxbow Mining’s Elk Creek mine, which is owned by Bill Koch, was approached by Aspen Ski Co. (SkiCo), Holy Cross and Vessels Coal Gas with an interesting proposal.

Despite being separated by a Rocky Mountain ridge, Aspen and Paonia are worlds apart. Paonia is a mining town and Aspen was a mining town, even though most residents would be shocked to learn that. For the political left and the environmental crowd, there is no greater demagogue than Koch Industries. Yet, they have found a way to coexist.

Holy Cross, a rural electric cooperative, needed to find a way to derive 20% of its electricity from renewable or clean sources. SkiCo wanted to buy clean energy, generated locally. It invested $5.5 million with Vessels Coal Gas to build a mini, methane-fired power plant. Holy Cross buys the power and, through wheeling agreements, distributes it to customers in Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin counties. Aspen is located in Pitkin County.

This unique relationship brought a diverse group together. Even though Elk Creek is not mining coal due to sponcom issues (see related news story on p. 18), the methane-capture project is producing electricity. The project reportedly generates a 12% return on investment. SkiCo also won a Golden Eagle award from the National Association of Ski Areas, the highest environmental award given by the association.

Steve Fiscor, Coal Age Editor-in-Chief
sfiscor@mining-media.com