(Casper Star Tribune, August 15) – The US Department of the Interior recently announced its intention to review the Bureau of Land Management’s federal coal leasing program. Their review includes staging listening sessions in Washington, D.C., and the West. This program, through which companies pay to lease and mine coal on federal land, has been a remarkable success by any reasonable measure.
Wyoming is the top coal-producing state in the nation, with the vast majority of this production coming from federal land in the Powder River Basin. Our mines are large, efficient and safe operations. It is essential that new coal reserves be leased in a reliable time frame and at a fair market value to continue to provide the necessary production to fuel our nation.
In 2014, Wyoming mines produced over 392 million tons of coal, and the financial contribution to state and local governments in the form of taxes, royalties and fees was over $1.1 billion. Wyoming’s share of federal mineral royalties — royalties paid to mine the leased coal — was over $263 million.
Over the years, bonus bids from the federal coal leasing program have totaled over $2.6 billion – revenue that has been dedicated to building schools and facilities (over 100) and supporting community colleges and highways across the state. Every county in Wyoming has benefited from these revenues.
The coal industry is critical to Wyoming, employing nearly 6,500 individuals directly, with a payroll of over $700 million, and over 2,000 contractors. The average coal mining job pays over $80,000 per year, well above the state average.
Considering that Wyoming accounts for 85 percent of all federal coal production, it couldn’t be clearer that taxpayers are receiving an excellent value from the BLM coal leasing program in terms of revenue and jobs. The idea that the American public is somehow being “shortchanged” is simply untrue.
The BLM Federal Coal Lease Program creates great value not only for those who directly benefit from mining, royalties, and bonus bids, like we do in Wyoming. It also provides value for those across America who rely on affordable electricity.
Wyoming’s coal production accounts for 40 percent of the total coal production in the United States. Our coal is used in 30 states as an abundant source of affordable and reliable fuel for electricity generation. With coal still providing for nearly 40 percent of America’s electricity, it can be said that nearly 1 in 5 households and businesses are powered by Wyoming coal.
A report on the program last year from the U.S. General Accounting Office called for more transparency and some process improvement while confirming that federal coal leases for Wyoming are being managed in a responsible fashion. The state with the largest share of federal coal leases is doing it right.
As the Interior Department pursues its review of this vital program, it is imperative to look at areas where actual improvements can be made to make the program better. Areas that warrant addressing include the lengthy and costly time frame for acquiring coal leases, determination of fair market value and increased transparency.
The Interior Department has the responsibility to ensure that facetious political efforts to use the BLM coal lease program to further burden industry and curb coal use are avoided. The department’s review must be fair, conscientious and meaningful. Attempts to restrict access to the resources through oppressive royalty rate increases, for example, are in no one’s interest and do not improve our prospects for a better tomorrow. The BLM must look to manage the resource appropriately and in a manner that does not put it off-limits or make it non-economical to mine for shortsighted political reasons.
The BLM Federal coal lease program creates great value for taxpayers and those who rely on affordable electricity. While there may be room for process improvement, continuing the program is certainly in the best interest of Wyoming and the United States.