CASPER — Emotions are running high in a showdown in Casper between environmentalists and the mining industry over possibly increasing federal fees to mine coal.
A federal coal-lease moratorium has added uncertainty to an industry struggling with bankruptcies, layoffs and mine closures. Any changes will have a big effect on a future U.S. coal industry centered in Wyoming.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is holding the first of six hearings on coal-leasing reform Tuesday. The hearing began at 10 a.m. and continues through 4 p.m. at the Casper Events Center. A bus and convoy of vehicles to attend a pre-meeting rally and attend the meeting left Gillette at 6:45 a.m.
Once at the meeting, they heard from several high-ranking public officials, including former Gillette mayor and current U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming, and Gov. Matt Mead.
Coal mining executive Richard Reavey dismisses the process a sham. Wyoming education superintendent Jillian Balow says she’s working to remove “liberal rhetoric” about climate change from science education.
While many at the meeting expressed pro-coal sentiments and admonished the Department of Interior for its plans to increase the rate companies pay to lease federal coal, there were plenty of voices in favor of revamping the federal lease program.
That includes Bob LaResche with the Powder River Basin Resource Council, who said changes to make sure the government gets a fair return on coal reserves are long overdue.
Brenda Windleaf-Hall with the World Wildlife Federation said all the moratorium on federal coal leases imposed in January should be maintained until taxpayers are “ensured a fair return” from coal companies.
She also accused mining companies of “walking away” from their reclamation obligations and asked that self-bonding be banned.
Like other Wyoming residents who spoke during the early part of the session, state Rep. Tim Stubson was skeptical that Tuesday’s meeting was truly a “listening” session, because it seems the Obama administration and Interior Secretary Salley Jewell have already seemed to make up their minds about increasing federal coal lease charges.
“I hope that it truly is a listening session,” he said. “Too often, we think these are speaking sessions (instead of listening).”
That the 39 percent rate of fees and taxes that are already collected on Powder River Basin coal is somehow inadequate or not the industry’s “fair share” is “baseless,” said Collin Marshal, president and CEO of Gillette-based Cloud Peak Energy.
In 25 years in the industry, Marshall said that the “tax and royalty burden by mines paid by U.S. coal is by far the highest.”
An example of just how much coal companies pay to public entities is found in the bottom line, Marshal said. For Cloud Peak, it paid $303 million in taxes and royalties in 2015, he said, while posting an overall loss of $264 million.
More than increasing the royalty rate, Jeremy Nichols with Wild Earth Guardians said that coal mining shouldn’t be made more difficulty, it should halt altogether.
“Our honest belief is the result of this reform effort needs to be more coal being left in the ground,” he said. “Keeping as much fossil fuel in the ground as possible is key.”
One of the comments to generate the greatest response came from Enzi, who said that “instead of running from coal, we need to be running on coal.”
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- On May 18, 2016