Thursday, August 10, 2017

Trump administration eases the way for coal mining on federal lands

"The Trump administration is wading into one of the oldest and most contentious debates in the West by encouraging more coal mining on lands owned by the federal government. It is part of an aggressive push to both invigorate the struggling American coal industry and more broadly exploit commercial opportunities on public lands," Eric Lipton and Barry Meier report for The New York Times. The U.S. has 643 million acres of public lands, mostly in the Westmore than six times the size of California. More than 40 percent of all coal mined in the U.S. comes from federal land.

The Interior Department temporarily banned new coal leases on public lands during the Obama administration, citing concerns about climate change. The administration also ordered mining companies to pay the government higher royalties and eliminated a loophole that coal companies selling to foreign buyers often used to avoid paying as much in royalties. The Trump administration is more sympathetic to mining companies. Led by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a Montanan, it is working quickly to reverse those measures and may reduce the number and footprint of wilderness and historic national monument areas that are off-limits for mining. On Aug. 7, the department officially repealed the Obama-era rule that effectively required oil, gas and coal extractors to pay more royalties to federal and state governments, Dino Grandoni reports for The Washington Post. The Trump administration stayed the rule in February.

Richard Reavey, the head of government relations for mining company Cloud Peak Energy, said he was glad for the recent increase in coal production and exports, following a major decline last year. Cloud Peak operates several open pit mines in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, the nation's most productive coalfield, which accounts for 85 percent of all coal extracted from federal lands. It ships coal to power plants in the Midwest and Asia. Because so many U.S. coal-burning plants have shut down, Reavey said, overseas markets were the only way mining companies can grow. By restricting federal lands, the Obama administration's goal, "in collusion with the environmentalists, was to drive us out of the export business," Reavey told the Times.
Map by WildEarth Guardians
Coal companies still have a long way to go before they can open more mines on federal land, "in part because environmentalists have blocked construction of a coal export terminal, and there is limited capacity at the port the companies use in Vancouver," the Times reports. There's other resistance too, not just by Democrats and conservationists. New Mexico and California sued the Interior Department in April to undo Trump's rollback in coal mine royalties. And Art Hayes, a rancher who lives near the Powder River basin, says he worries that increased mining will pollute his stock's water supply. Hayes and a local Cheyenne tribe sued the government in March to challenge the decision to lift the moratorium on new coal leases.

The cash-strapped local Crow tribe is more optimistic about the future of coal in the region, since they signed an agreement with Cloud Peak in 2013 to allow the company to extract up to 1.4 billion tons of coal from the tribe's lands. "The tribe estimates the Cloud Peak operations could generate $10 million in payments for a community where the unemployment rate in June was 19.4 percent, five times the state average," the Times reports. "Coal, for us, is the ticket to prosperity. We are rich in coal reserves. But we are cash poor," the tribe's vice secretary Shawn Backbone told The Times. But Cheyenne Donna Fisher says preserving the area is more important. "We are wealthy in life here," she said. "We don’t have money. But we have land, water and air. Snuff that out and we are gone."

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