(Gillette News Record, August 14) – A loud, defiant voice rose from the Energy Capital of the Nation on Thursday afternoon with a simple message for Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell: Don’t burn the nation’s coal industry.
Jewell has called for “an honest and open conversation” about updating the federal coal lease program amid claims from some that undervalued leases and loopholes allow the industry to exploit the program and avoid paying its fair share to extract the mineral from federal lands.
To put it bluntly, those who make those claims “don’t know what they’re talking about,” said Kirby Eisenhauer during a Gillette listening session to gather input into Jewell’s proposal to overhaul the federal coal program.
The Campbell County School District associate superintendent received vigorous applause from the standing-room-only crowd in the Wyoming Room at the Campbell County Public Library.
Eisenhauer, whose mother has driven a mine haul truck for the past 20 years, continued to explain that he’s “offended” by the process so far.
“I am offended by Sally Jewell (who said) that we need open and honest communication,” he said. That statement “insinuates something dishonest is going on here.”
Thursday’s listening session is the third of five scheduled in Washington, D.C., and throughout the West. The BLM will gather more input in Denver on Tuesday and Aug. 20 in Farmington, New Mexico.
The BLM reports it manages 310 coal leases that encompass about 475,000 acres in the United States and that about 40 percent of U.S. coal is mined from federal lands.
While those attending the Gillette session were thankful to have their voices heard, many also expressed frustration and a belief that their comments will fall on deaf ears. They suggested an overhaul of the federal coal program is the next step in the Obama administration’s war on coal.
It’s a war that’s targeting the coal industry with misinformation, such as assertions that companies aren’t paying what they should for undervalued coal and selling it for reduced rates to their own subsidiaries.
In 30 years in the coal industry, Cloud Peak Energy employee Bruce Jones said he’s seen a lot of misinformation spread, but that the attack on his industry has never been as focused as it is now.
He said he’s responsible for reclamation at the company’s mines and that Powder River Basin operations are “second to none” in their reclamation efforts.
“When you go out to the mines, you see wildlife and plants,” he said.
In fact, Jones said, many times the land is left better than it was before being mined because it’s reclaimed with more vegetation, which attracts more wildlife.
Arch West executive Keith Williams said the numbers show that coal is paying a fair price to the American public, and during a historically depressed time for the industry, it can’t afford to pay more.
“What’s fair to the taxpayer?” he asked. “I would ask you to consider the taxpayer here (in the basin).”
He said Arch West is now selling its coal for about $13 a ton. After extraction costs and paying $2.60 (about 20 percent) for its lease obligation, the company itself only realizes a profit of about 5 percent. Compared to what companies pay private landowners for leases — about 17 cents — he said the federal government’s share is more than enough.
More than just mining
Others wanted Jewell to know just how far-reaching the coal industry is in Wyoming and its communities.
Sherry England, executive director for YES House in Gillette, said many nonprofit agencies like hers in Campbell County and across Wyoming receive millions of dollars a year from coal companies out of a desire to be good corporate citizens.
On top of what the companies pay in required fees and taxes, they also voluntarily give millions to local nonprofits and school districts each year.
“What you’re proposing would be devastating to our communities and our families,” she said, adding that if the federal government really wants to help coal, it could streamline the lease process. “Five to seven years (to process an application)? Marriages don’t last that long.”
Coal critics also speak
While most of the comments were in support of the coal industry, there were some who urged Jewell to move forward with revamping the regulations. Those comments came from organized environmental groups like the Powder River Basin Resource Council and WildEarth Guardians.
In fact, in a written statement, WildEarth Guardians urged Jewell and the federal government to go much farther than just revise the coal lease program.
“It’s time for the Interior Department to shut it down,” said Jeremy Nichols, the group’s climate and energy program director. “Keeping our coal in the ground is the only way to ensure our country successfully transitions to clean energy and effectively confronts the climate crisis.”
Saying she’s a Wyoming native and that “I care deeply about our state,” Powder River Basin Resource Council employee Shannon Anderson said there’s plenty of evidence to show that the royalties and bonus payments from coal companies are short millions of dollars a year.
“We are long overdue to take a hard look at this program and overhaul it,” she said.
The big guns
In a show of Cowboy State solidarity, Gov. Matt Mead and Wyoming’s entire Congressional delegation attended Thursday’s listening session to comment on the record against the Department of the Interior’s proposal to overhaul the federal coal plan.
To enthusiastic applause, U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming, explained that he was Gillette’s mayor and served in the state Legislature when the coal mines came to northeast Wyoming, and that all along they’ve done business the right way.
He also used the federal government’s own numbers to make another point about the economic impact of putting more burden on an already depressed U.S. industry and the effect that could have on the country. He said the government’s own estimates show that every 1 percent gain in the economy equals $400 billion.
“The converse is also true,” he said, explaining that shutting down coal will be more than just a 1 percent hit.
As it is, “there isn’t anybody interested in buying coal right now,” he said, adding that one PRB mine recently reported it paid about $350 million in fees and taxes and made an overall profit of $5 million. “This will ripple through the entire economy. We ask that you don’t kill the golden goose.”
U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, was more direct and animated with his comments. He called the administration “hypocritical” for on one hand trying to cripple the coal industry with the Clean Power Plan, then asking for the coal companies to pay more in royalties and bonus payments.
It’s not an issue of trying to make sure the industry pays a fair share, he said, “it’s trying to get rid of coal.”
U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyoming, said the solution to the debate is simple: Jewell and the BLM simply need to follow their own directives, which is to maximize the value of coal mined from public lands.
“You get no value out of coal by keeping it in the ground,” she said, adding that revamping the standards goes against that mandate.
Charging more of companies that have already filed for or are on the verge of bankruptcy isn’t good public land management, it’s “turning the federal coal program into a global warming program,” she said.
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead said that not only are the misconceptions and propaganda about how coal devastates the environment wrong, the operations in Wyoming are “world class” examples of how to do it right.
Since 2005, coal royalties in the state have contributed nearly $2 billion to build 74 new schools and to remodel dozens more.
In the end, Mead said it’s not an exaggeration to say that making coal companies pay more for their leases would be “a disaster for this state and a disaster for this country.”