Democratic senators urge Interior to get tough on coal reserve leasing

The Ranking Member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and 13 other senators in a May 27 letter outlined three priorities for Interior Secretary Sally Jewell regarding upcoming reforms to the federal coal leasing program.

The Interior Dept. is reviewing the program and updating the programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) under which federal coal is leased. In the letter, the senators commend Jewell for her efforts to modernize the federal coal program, while ensuring that the pause announced in January on new leasing will not disrupt the power sector. They said three imperatives should guide the reform process:

  • Get the science right.
  • Reconsider the government’s market role.
  • Reconsider how to balance multiple uses over time.

First, the senators believe that the United States cannot continue to lease coal without taking into account the fact that it is the most significant source of power sector greenhouse gas emissions. Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which does the actual coal leasing, must ground the new PEIS in the new reality, they said.

Second, the fact that 90% of federal lease sales since 1990 had single bidders suggests that Western coal markets are structurally non-competitive, they said. Notable is that many coal mines don’t abut other coal mines, and new federal lease areas are usually extra reserves for existing mines and are rarely big enough to support a brand-new mine. These are factors that tend to limit any competitive bidding for new tracts.

Lastly, the effects of mining a ton of public coal today may rebound on public lands for centuries, damaging opportunities for recreation, water supply, wildfire resilience and even other extractive uses like grazing and timber, the senators wrote. A huge disparity exists between the high, long-term costs of burning the public’s coal and the low, short-term return from selling it. The BLM must address this disparity.

The senators also advocated fixes for other aspects of the federal coal programs, including: “deficient” financial assurance rules, such as self-bonding of mine reclamation obligations; accelerated mine reclamation; miners’ pension and health care funds; and assistance for coal country to diversify, transition and rebuild.

The senators on the letter include: Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkeley (D-Ore.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.