In a March 17 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called for an open conversation about modernizing the federal coal program to ensure taxpayers get a fair return from public resources and make the federal coal program consistent with President Obama’s climate action plan.
She said that administrative agencies and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle acknowledge that the federal coal program needs reform.
In response to Jewell’s statement, Sierra Club Director of Lands Protection Program Athan Manuel said: “Coal companies are making us sick, damaging our special places, and raking in windfall profits as American taxpayers are being cheated, and today’s speech from Secretary Jewell provides a critical signal that our leaders are getting serious about federal coal lease reform. Importantly, Secretary Jewell acknowledges that the coal program is inconsistent with President Obama’s climate objectives and that in order to protect our children’s health, we must keep dirty fuels in the ground and reform the outdated program. We commend Secretary Jewell for leading the Department of the Interior to support President Obama’s climate plan.”
Jewell’s prepared speech on this point says: “[W]e’re moving forward with a proposal to modernize the way coal mining operations protect community water sources, and make sure companies restore streams and forests to a healthy condition.”
At a later point Jewell added: “I think most Americans would be surprised to know that coal companies can make a winning bid for about a dollar a ton to mine taxpayer-owned coal. Coal is going to continue to be an important part of our nation’s energy mix in the future. But the Government Accountability Office, our Inspector General, and Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle agree that the federal coal program needs reform. We need to ask ourselves: Are taxpayers and local communities getting a fair return from these resources? How can we make the program more transparent and more competitive? How do we manage the program in a way that is consistent with our climate change objectives? These are hard questions. But it’s time for an honest and open conversation about modernizing the federal coal program.”
Environmental groups including WildEarth Guardians have tried for years, so far unsucessfully, to get the federal courts to order Interior’s Bureau of Land Management to include greenhouse gas issues when doing environmental reviews of each lease application filed by coal companies under the federal coal leasing program. Under that program, winning bidders at a BLM auction (there is rarely a competing bidder) get a BLM-administered coal reserve for upfront “bonus” payments, then a per-ton royalty paid as each ton is produced. Much of the coal reserves that companies in the western U.S. mine are in BLM-administered property. BLM leases out relatively little coal in the eastern U.S., where there is much less federal public land.