Interior: Study to consider coal royalty rates, end to leasing

The Obama administration said Wednesday that the Bureau of Land Management will study federal coal program reforms that could including anything from raising royalty rates to ending new leasing due to climate-change concerns.

The prospects for any such changes are dubious, though, with the impending presidential inauguration of Donald Trump, who campaigned as a supporter of coal mining.

Interior on Wednesday released the results of a review of the coal program, which included holding six public meetings across the country. One was held in June in Grand Junction, and attended by some 350 people. Some were local coal miners or mining supporters, and others were people concerned about the environmental impacts of mining and burning coal.

“Based on the thoughtful input we received through this extensive review, there is a need to modernize the federal coal program,” Jewell said in an Interior Department news release. “We have a responsibility to ensure the public — including state governments — get a fair return from the sale of America’s coal, operate the program efficiently and in a way that meets the needs of our neighbors in coal communities, and minimize the impact coal production has on the planet that our children and grandchildren will inherit. The only responsible next step is to undertake further review and implement these commonsense measures.”

The government called the review the first step in a process that will be followed by the release of a draft programmatic environmental impact statement, and then a final document by 2019.

Jewell imposed a moratorium on most new coal leasing while reforms are being considered, but Trump has vowed to end it.

Stan Dempsey, Jr., president of the Colorado Mining Association, said he doubts the effort to reform the coal program will be a priority of the administration of Trump. Trump has expressed an interest in promoting development of natural resources, “not establishing roadblocks or bogus impediments designed to keep coal in the ground, which is exactly the Obama administration’s overall objective,” Dempsey said.

Interior said the reforms the BLM will study will include possibly raising royalty rates that currently are generally 8 percent for underground mines and 12.5 percent for surface mines. It also will consider things such as imposing higher royalty rates or a carbon fee to address the climate-change impacts of mining and burning coal, or even issuing no future leases, except lease modifications within defined acreage limits, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The BLM says it will consider whether it has legal authority to cease leasing.

Jeremy Nichols, with the conservation group WildEarth Guardians, praised Interior’s acknowledgement of coal’s climate impacts and its willingness to consider an end to new leasing.

“The Interior Department … has made clear that if we have any chance of safeguarding our climate, we have to consider putting an end to mining publicly owned coal,” Nichols said in a news release. “No politician can change the reality of our climate crisis, the need to curtail carbon, and the imperative for moving away from fossil fuels to clean energy.” 

The BLM also will consider opportunities to address methane emissions related to mining in its upcoming environmental study, it said. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and huge volumes of it traditionally have been vented into the atmosphere in connection with mining in places such as the North Fork Valley. The BLM said it will evaluate approaches such as creating incentives for coal companies to use methane free onsite or sell it.

It also had initiated a rulemaking in 2014 specifically to consider using or flaring methane from mines rather than venting it.


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