Coal industry officials and critics converge on Gillette

Ben Neary, Associated Press
Coal industry officials and environmentalists face off over the federal government's call for suggestions on how to make sure taxpayers are getting a fair return on public land coal production.
Copyright, The Associated Press

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Coal industry officials and environmentalists are coming to the heart of Wyoming's coal country to face off over the federal government's call for suggestions on how to make sure taxpayers are getting a fair return on public land coal production.

Thursday's meeting in Gillette is the second of four that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is staging this month around the West.

The meetings are in response to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell's call earlier this year for a public dialogue on the federal coal program.

"I have heard many concerns about how the federal government leases coal, the amount of royalty charged and whether taxpayers are getting a fair return from public resources," Jewell stated in a BLM release announcing the Gillette meeting.

The BLM currently manages 310 active coal leases covering about 475,000 acres in 10 states, according to an agency statement. The federal coal program brought in $876 million in royalties in 2012 and almost $1.6 billion in bonus payments on lease sales, according to the Interior Department.

More than 40 percent of the roughly one billion tons of coal mined annually in the U.S. comes from beneath federal lands in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Montana and other Western states. About 475,000 acres were leased out to companies through the end of 2013.

Wyoming remains the nation's top coal-producing state, although state officials say they're increasingly worried about the industry's future in the face of lower natural gas prices and tougher new federal emissions standards that target coal-fired power plants nationwide.

The first listening session, held Tuesday in Billings, Montana, drew industry critics as well as miners who testified they're worried that federal policies threaten their jobs. Sessions will be held Aug. 18 in Denver and Aug. 20 in Farmington, N.M.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and members of the state's congressional delegation — all supporters of the coal industry — plan to attend Thursday's meeting.

Mead and other Wyoming officials increasingly have pinned their hopes on exporting coal to Asia to make up for slipping domestic demand. However, Wyoming has run into opposition from states in the Northwest to its plan to shipcoal by rail to ocean ports.

Jonathan Downing, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, said he intends to testify in Gillette that hiking coal royalties would amount to a tax increase for the industry and hike electrical costs for consumers nationwide.

Many coal companies are seeing tough economic times, with stock prices falling and financial troubles looming.

"Companies have been trying to be as lean as possible and when your cost of doing business goes up, that's always a challenge," Downing said.

Jeremy Nichols of the WildEarth Guardians group's Colorado office said he intends to testify Thursday that the federal government should end its coalleasing program entirely — not quibble over whether to change the royalty program. He said Wednesday that global warming makes continued mining and burning of coal untenable.

"The writing is on the wall, our nation needs to move away from coal, and the Interior Department needs to start playing a leading role in helping to make that happen," Nichols said. He emphasized the federal government should help coal-dependent communities such as Gillette transition to sustainable economies.

Shannon Anderson, organizer with the Powder River Basin Resource Council, based in Sheridan, said Wednesday that it's been three decades since the federal government undertook a review of its coal program.

"So it's long overdue to take a hard look at the program, and think about where the government needs to go," Anderson said. She said the royalty program doesn't amount to a tax on the coal industry because it rises and falls with industry profits.

Thursday's hearing runs from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Campbell County Library. The BLM intends to livestream listening sessions as they occur on www.blm.gov/live.

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