Moratorium pleases enviros, disheartens industry supporters

Environmental organizations hailed a moratorium on new federal coal leases announced on Friday, saying it would produce financial and climate benefits.

Western Colorado officials and the Colorado Mining Association said the moratorium amounts to a harbinger of the death of the coal industry, however.

All of Colorado’s active coal mines are on the Western Slope.

The leasing of federal coal has amounted to a handout to big coal companies, said Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“Aligning the use of America’s public lands with our obligation to protect future generations from the dangers of climate change — that’s what leadership is all about, at home and abroad, as we transition away from dirty fossil fuels of the past to a clean energy 21st century,” Suh said in a statement on the moratorium.

It won’t make much of a difference to global climate, said Moffat County Commissioner John Kinkaid, whose county is home to two of the state’s operating mines.

“It means 1/100th of a degree change (in global temperatures) if you go by the EPA numbers,” Kinkaid said of stopping domestic coal mining and the Environmental Protection Agency. “It sends another very chilling message to the coal industry and utilities that they want to drive another nail into your coffin.”

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., whose 3rd Congressional District includes all the state’s operating mines, said that the 
moratorium “reeks of contempt for rural America and for the most vulnerable Americans who will suffer as electricity prices increase and the reliability in the grid decreases.”

In commenting on the moratorium, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., cited the government’s coal-leasing program, saying it is broken and needs repair.

Any long delay could have real economic consequences in Colorado, Bennet’s office said in a statement, adding that the administration “should move as quickly as possible to make necessary changes, and restart a federal leasing program that makes sense for our energy future.”

Kinkaid, who has credited Bennet, a close ally of President Barack Obama, with helping to keep open the Colowyo mine and its 220 jobs, said he hoped to continue working with the senator.

Bennet has been helping Moffat County “and I hope we don’t have a parting of the ways. My intent is to continue building that relationship and see how we can work out solutions” benefiting northwest Colorado.

The Denver-based Center for Western Priorities said the “temporary pause” in leasing will have a negligible effect on current coal production but would help to ensure that taxpayers are receiving a fair return from any new mining on federal lands.

The review will take the shape of a programmatic environmental impact statement and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said there will some “commonsense” exceptions to the moratorium, such as one for metallurgical coal and emergencies.

“Given serious concerns raised about the federal coal program, we’re taking the prudent step to hit pause on approving significant new leases so that decisions about those leases can benefit from the recommendations that come out of the review,” Jewell said.

There are 20 years of reserves that can still be mined during and after the moratorium, Jewell said.

The moratorium, however, will fix a problem that doesn’t exist, said Stuart Sanderson, executive director of the Colorado Mining Association.

“There’s no purpose for it, the existing system works well,” Sanderson said, adding that a moratorium amounts to a violation of Interior’s charge to promote the orderly development of natural resources.

Halting or slowing production will have severe consequences for local and state governments that depend on severance taxes and shares of federal royalties to fund schools, public works and other activities, Sanderson said.

“Zero production means zero royalties,” Sanderson said.

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