A “confidential” email exchange between former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Jim Martin and Tim Wirth, Vice Chair of the United Nations Foundation, exposes a growing rift between the environmental left and more mainstream Democrats, including those in the Obama administration.
Martin and Wirth discussed coal mine closures in Western Colorado, which as Martin acknowledged may be what the environmental community wants but would be “bad for the miners and their families, bad for the local economy.” Martin also exposes the onerous regulatory burdens facing coal mines that threatened to shut them down anyway.
In the email Martin asks Wirth to keep the information “confidential” because it “would NOT be helpful” if anyone “got ahold” of their comments. Among Martin’s reflections are criticisms aimed at the environmental left, whom he views outside the mainstream on messaging and expectations alike.
“Personally, I am not at all sure their message resonates anywhere outside their organizations, since what they are really urging is closure of the mine, but that’s another matter (they have zero political support in the state and the enviro community is split),” Martin says in a particularly frank passage.
Democratic Sen. Mark Udall’s wife, environmental activist and lawyer Maggie Fox, was also included in an earlier part of the email exchange.
At one time, Martin worked for Wirth when Wirth served in Congress as a Representative and U.S. Senator from Colorado. Like Sen. Udall, Wirth represented Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District prior to being elected to the U.S. Senate.
The emails, obtained by the Independence Institute as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request in October 2013 by The Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Chris Horner, reveal the ongoing use of personal, unofficial emails by Martin while performing official government business when he served as the EPA administrator for Region 8, which includes Colorado.
‘Jim: take a look at this and let me know what you think we might do’
Wirth acknowledged questions about methane leakage surrounding two separate coal mines just northeast of Paonia, Colorado in the April 2012 email exchange—Arch Coal’s West Elk Mine, and Oxbow Mining’s Elk Creek Mine, owned by billionaire Bill Koch.
Wirth forwarded an email to Martin concerning “coal mining drainage vents” near Paonia that had been forwarded to him by an unknown source (the email address and name were redacted in the FOIA), which included Wirth, Reid Detchon, and Fox as recipients.
Detchon is Vice President for Energy and Climate at the United Nations Foundation and executive director of the Energy Future Coalition. Wirth helped launch the EFC in 2001 with the help of Fox. She served most recently as President and CEO of The Climate Reality Project, an initiative headed by former Democratic Vice President Al Gore. Fox—who was working at the Sierra Club when the EFC coalition formed—is married to Colorado’s senior Senator, Mark Udall, a Democrat seeking reelection in November 2014.
The email, dated Friday April 20, 2012, came from Dr. Theo Colborn, president emeritus of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, expressing grave concern over coal mine vents and the “huge spiderweb-like ground patterns” of vent access roads in the area near Paonia, and the group’s efforts to thwart current and future development.
“We are trying to stop the selling of the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] leases until current emissions from both the coal mine vents and the natural gas wells already operating in our air-shed are accounted for and until some air sampling is done in the valley,” Colburn wrote.
Wirth forwarded that account to Martin later that same day asking the EPA administrator for his thoughts on what “we might do” about the emissions near Paonia.
“I have long been suspicious that the leakage of methane from coal mines is very significant (and I bet that the coal industry has been doing all they can to propagate info about leakage from fracking The [sic] best defense is a good offense),” Wirth wrote, adding that any further requests from Oxbow (Koch) not be cleared until mine impacts could be determined, likely through an environmental impact statement.
‘Please treat what I am writing below as confidential. It would NOT be helpful if Theo or anyone else got ahold [sic] of these comments’
Martin responded to Wirth using his personal, unofficial email from his BlackBerry but not until the following Monday, April 23. Martin acknowledged that the two men would meet later that same week.
“Please treat what I am writing below as confidential,” Martin wrote in the email labeled “CONFIDENTIAL.”
“It would NOT be helpful if Theo or anyone else got ahold [sic] of these comments.”
“These coal mine issues are nothing if not complicated,” Martin began.
Martin laid out the issues introduced by Colburn and pressed by Wirth.
“The issue on our table right now is the Arch Coal mine. There may be a similar Koch issue, I’ll ask around,” Martin wrote. “The new mine issues are a great deal simpler and easier than the existing mine issues.”
These issues included repercussions not only to Arch Coal, but also to local jobs and the economy.
“The Arch issue has been festering for at least five years, maybe more. They need to start a new drift to get to a deposit that will keep the mine open. Without that, the mine will close (by the end of the year, apparently) and a lot of people will suddenly be unemployed; bad for the miners and their families, bad for the local economy,” Martin continued.
“Arch has been at this, as I said, for a number of years, and the bureaucratic issues never seem to move. Not a pretty picture,” he wrote.
Martin noted, however, that the surrounding environmental concerns expressed by Colburn, Wirth, and others were mitigated by the nature of the ore.
“In any event, it is high quality ‘compliance’ coal, so there are significant domestic markets for this stuff. That’s why the mine makes economic sense,” Martin added.
‘they have zero political support in the state and the enviro community is split’
Martin continued to describe the “festering” regulatory hurdles in great detail.
“In order to open the new drift, they [Arch] would need to install vents, so that much is true; otherwise, there is a very significant risk of an underground explosion,” Martin wrote. Flaring the vented gas “is a worker safety issue,” Martin noted, and added that the required vents were responsible for the additional need to cut the “spiderweb-like” roads for installation, which Colburn and others opposed.
“That is where the pre-existing rights issue emerges – since it is an existing mine, the roadless rule, whatever flavor you support, won’t keep them from installing vents,” Martin wrote.
“But some enviros are trying.”
At this point Martin opens up about his views on the environmental movement’s incoherence in this matter, holding back nothing as he writes frankly to Wirth.
“Those same enviros are arguing that the methane should be captured and used in some way. However, there are several impediments. First off, the enviros oppose the temporary roads to install the infrastructure needed to capture the gas,” Martin explains.
“Personally, I am not at all sure their message resonates anywhere outside their organizations, since what they are really urging is closure of the mine, but that’s another matter (they have zero political support in the state and the enviro community is split),” Martin continues.
But an even bigger regulatory hurdle further clouds the call for venting and capture.
“But perhaps the bigger issue is that BLM (and the courts) sees the coal and gas as separate leasable minerals, and Arch does not have the right to capture the methane they’d be collecting,” Martin wrote. It would be unclear if Arch would receive a lease for the gas, Martin explains, even if one were offered.
‘no one seems to be able to cut through these various and sundry issues’
Martin wrapped up his email to Wirth with additional regulatory and environmental concerns surrounding Arch’s predicament.
The possible generation of electricity from the vented gas would not be economical, according to Martin.
“That does not seem to be in the cards,” he wrote.
Flaring the gas would trigger the “snakebit” Mine Safety and Health Administration’s concerns over worker safety, even if it solved greenhouse gas emissions, Martin elaborated.
“I do not see them backing off their argument that flaring poses a worker safety issue. And of course, Arch would need to install the capture infrastructure, which the enviros (some of them, anyway) oppose,” Martin noted.
“Anyway, that’s the conundrum we face,” Martin closed. “The action agencies are BLM and FS [Forest Service]. Neither seems excited at the prospect of forcing the closure of the mine, but no one seems to be able to cut through these various and sundry issues.”
“But we’re trying.”
‘a new mine is a whole different kettle of fish’
Martin and Wirth concluded their email exchange the next day. Wirth speculated about possible plans for an additional mine in the area.
“I think that Koch has plans for exactly the same area for new mine. Someone told me that his strategy was to permit and open the new mine, and close down the old one. But I do not remember source,” Wirth wrote.
“Yes, have heard plans are afoot. But a new mine is a whole different kettle of fish,” Martin responded.
‘These job losses have a compounding effect’
Two years later, Colorado coal production has declined and only one of the two mines Wirth wrote about in 2012 is still open.
Arch Coal’s West Elk Mine remains open, although its future remains uncertain.
Oxbow’s Elk Creek Mine shut down in December 2013 after underground fires developed rendering the mine hazardous.
Sen. Udall wrote to the U.S. Department of Commerce on January 27, 2014 seeking possible funding from the agency’s Economic Development Administration to help the dislocated Elk Creek Mine workers and the economies of Gunnison County and Delta County.
“The programs under the EDA, specifically designed for rapid, innovative responses to recent layoffs in communities, will potentially benefit the economies in these two western Colorado counties, where nearly 260 high paying jobs have been lost. These job losses have a compounding effect in that the mine is also one of the largest taxpayers in the area,” Udall wrote.
As Martin predicted in his 2012 email, mine closures would threaten the local economy through the loss of jobs, tax income, and dislocate families.
School enrollment has plummeted; well-paying jobs have disappeared as coal mining activities have been reduced in recent years.
Delta County Economic Development director Sarah Carlquist characterized the economic situation on the Western Slope as “a little crippled already”—in direct response to Udall’s call for federal economic assistance.
Since these emails Martin himself has changed jobs. He resigned his position at the EPA after investigations revealed he used personal emails to conduct EPA business. He now serves as senior counsel at Beatty & Wozniak, P.C. Martin also serves on the advisory board of the industry-funded organization Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development (CRED), which educates on hydraulic fracturing and responsible oil and gas development.
Send us tips at CompleteColorado@gmail.com.