Coal Mining on Public Lands in Colorado

The  US Forest Service is proposing allowing coal mining in the North Fork Valley in western Colorado. The proposal would allow development on nearly 20,000 acres of protected, roadless wildlife habitat.

Mark Squillace, Professor of Law at CU Boulder, recently wrote a guest commentary in the Denver Post on coal mining on public lands.


Professor Mark Squillace of the CU Boulder law school. He recently wrote an op ed in the Denver Post on coal mining on public lands. The  US Forest Service’s is proposing allowing coal mining on public land in the North Fork Valley in western Colorado. The public comment period on this proposal was due to close today, but it has been expanded until January 15th.

“Where the government is falling down, not just on federal lands but more broadly in relation to its management of coal, is in failing to recognize that coal is on the decline and that decline is going to continue. In that situation you need an agency like the federal government to manage the decline in a responsible way.”  Squillace says that is particularly true on federal lands where the federal government has a lot of control, particularly considering that about 80% of coal in the west is federal coal “that is the bulk of the coal that is produced in the country.”

Squillace says correct federal management of these fossil fuels is very important as projections show that coal will continue to decline due to concerns about climate change and because of cost, then coal resources need to be managed “in a way that is well planned and well thought out.”

Earlier this year, a federal judge blocked the Forest Service plan in the North Fork Valley and asked the Forest Service to calculate the impact on climate change of extracting the coal.  Professor Squillace says external costs like the impact on climate change, impact on health due to degrading air quality are not included in the  ‘these are all costs that are frankly not taken into account under the current system that we have.”  Squillace has advocated a structure where those external costs are built into any future coal leases “we essentially ask that coal companies pay for those external costs that are born by society currently but that are not paid for by the people who are developing and burning that coal.”


Ted Zukoski,  a staff attorney with Earth Justice in Denver, says the issue goes back to the year 2000 when Bill Clinton was president and he adopted a nationwide rule that protected 50 million acres of roadless national forest from future road construction.”Immediately after he did that he left office, President George W. Bush came in with the express intent of unraveling that rule and spent a number of years trying to do that and ultimately failed when every court challenge to the rule was blocked by federal courts.”

Zukoski says that in Colorado, in the face of challenges to the federal rule, efforts were made to get the Forest Service to adopt a state-wide rule to ensure that roadless areas were being protected. That state-wide rule was adopted in 2012 for the more than 4 million acres of roadless lands in Colorado but Zukoski says the legislation contained a big loophole “there were coal companies in the room and ski companies and water providers and they all took a little bite out of roadless areas to get the agreement adopted and one of those was a loophole for coalmines.”  A federal judge closed that loophole, but now the US Forest Service is seeking to have it reinstated.   A federal court said the US Forest Service needed to include climate change into its analysis if it wants to reinstate the loophole that would allow coal mining in the roadless area in the North Fork Valley.

Zukoski says that the US Forest Service analysis showed that a significant amount of CO2 would be released into the atmosphere as a result of extracting and combusting the coal in the mine.  The analysis also showed that it would significantly impact efforts to move to a cleaner energy economy “It would displace 40,000 gigawatt energy so not keeping it in the ground means it will be an anchor…it will be dragging down the switch to renewable energy because it will be flooding the market with cheaper coal…and so it’s actually going to slow our transition to a cleaner energy future.”


Public comment on the US Forest Service proposal to allow coal mining on public roadless lands in the North Fork Valley closes onJanuary 15th. Comments can be submitted on line or mailed to:

Colorado Roadless Rule, 740 Simms Street, Golden, CO 80401.

image: flickr