May 19, 2016 Read More →

Stakes Are High in Federal Review of Coal Lease Program

By Devin Henry in The Hill:

Miners and Western Republicans are lining up against the Obama administration and environmentalists in what some consider the next front in the “war on coal.”

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced a three-year moratorium on new coal leases on public lands in January, launching a review that could potentially result in mining companies paying  higher rates.

“It fits tidily into their overall view of coal,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“You can call it a ‘war on coal,’ you can call it whatever you want. It is a policy directive coming out of this administration that says coal has no part in our country’s energy portfolio. I think that’s short-sighted and very unfortunate.”

Administration officials held the first public meeting on the review on Tuesday in Wyoming, with four more to follow. 

The review is moving ahead at a time when coal has become a flashpoint in the presidential race.

Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump is running on a platform of undoing Obama-era environmental regulations and has promised coal-state lawmakers he will do what he can to help prop up the commodity. 

Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has been on the defensive after saying she was going to “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” She apologized for her choice of words but said she was making a broader point about helping coal miners as their industry shrinks.

The federal review of new coal leases could take up to three years and will look at several hot-button issues, including whether the cost of climate change should be incorporated into the fees that mining companies pay. 

Environmentalists, local officials and mining interests all see high stakes in the review.

Green advocates say coal companies have skirted paying proper royalty rates for years. They contend the industry should be forced to pay taxpayers a fair return for using public resources and say they should chip in extra to offset the impact of coal on climate change. 

“This sort of comprehensive look at climate has not happened before,” said Cesia Kearns, the Associate Northwest Regional Director for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to even have the conversation and to acknowledge the impacts of climate change are bigger than we have considered before in a program like this.”

Another underlying issue is the shrinking revenue that the government receives from mining on federal lands. 

A 2012 report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis blamed flawed Interior market appraisals for undervaluing coal on public land. It said the government has lost up to $30 billion in potential revenue over three decades in the Powder Ridge Basin, a tract of land in Wyoming and Montana that provides 85 percent of the coal mined on public land.

“Interior has consistently failed to achieve what the Mineral Leasing Act requires, which is that the taxpayers receive a return based on the fair market value of coal, and that is what Congress has said they are supposed to do and that is what they have failed to do in the past,” Dan Bucks, the former director of the Montana Department of Revenue, told reporters last week. 

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