House lawmakers are split along partisan lines on legislation that would allow state and tribal leaders a greater say in federal land decisions in the wake of the Obama administration’s controversial moratorium on new federal coal leases.
The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources met yesterday to discuss H.R. 5259, the “Certainty for States and Tribes Act,” introduced last month by Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.).
The bill would re-establish the Royalty Policy Committee, which was originally founded in 1995 to provide land policy recommendations to the Interior Department secretary. Republican lawmakers say the RPC would give a stronger policy voice to state and tribal leaders in large Western states like Montana and Wyoming that have large tracts of federal land.
“When the Department of the Interior makes a decision affecting revenues or royalties from federal lands, the schoolchildren of New York, or Iowa, or Texas are not seriously affected,” said subcommittee Chairman Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.). “But in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana a child’s future is directly impacted by such a decision.”
Education departments in large Western states often rely heavily on coal and mineral royalties to fund programs and pay for school construction, but the Obama administration earlier this year halted federal leases while Interior conducts a comprehensive review of the leasing program (Greenwire, Jan. 15).
Re-establishing the RPC would build “meaningful partnerships” between states, tribes and the federal government to keep fossil fuel and renewable energy funds flowing into schools, said Jillian Balow, Wyoming’s superintendent of public instruction, who testified at the hearing.
Professor Mark Squillace of the University of Colorado Law School, however, said the bill ignores profound problems with federal coal leasing policy.
“In particular, I would highlight a study that was done by an independent outfit suggesting that state and federal taxpayers have lost $28.9 billion because of the failure of the federal government to insist upon fair market value of their leasing,” he said at the hearing. “That’s a lot of money that could be going to things like Ms. Balow was talking about in terms of improving the school systems in states like Wyoming.”
But Republicans stressed that all members should support the transparency the RPC would provide in federal land decisions given their disproportionate effect on Western states.
“It is not about global warming or coal,” Zinke said at the hearing. “It is about a process that allows our communities a say.”
“In Montana these issues are red, white and blue and they’re not red or blue,” he said.
Democrats and Interior officials, however, were skeptical about language in the bill that would give the RPC broad powers to determine federal land policies.
But while subcommittee ranking member Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) said re-establishing the RPC could be “very helpful” in getting taxpayers their fair share of royalty revenues, Interior officials dismissed the idea.
“Re-establishing the RPC is unnecessary,” said Amanda Leiter, deputy assistant secretary of Land and Minerals Management. “The department already has various formal and informal arrangements to receive input from states, tribes, industries, NGOs and other stakeholders on key minerals issues.”
Leiter said Interior had already received input on the review of its coal leasing policy during a public comment period, but Republicans questioned the efficacy of that approach.
“To have an advisory board, which gives those communities that are at dead center a weight that is greater than a comment of ‘I like clean air,’ I think, is appropriate,” Zinke said.
Leiter voiced concern, alongside Democrats, about a section in the bill that would set a three-year time limit on the Interior secretary’s review of federal coal leasing policy, a measure that Republicans say would increase government accountability.
The limit could present challenges in finalizing new federal leasing policy recommendations, she said.
Lawmakers also clashed over the reasons for the coal industry’s recent downturn, reflecting a broader partisan trend as the country enters a period of economic and environmental transition.
Republicans blamed excessive regulation and job-killing federal interference for coal’s struggles, while Democrats pointed to the rise of natural gas and renewables, saying that new policy should aim to help former coal communities, rather than attempt to bring the industry back.
But it was clear yesterday that the debate has wide-reaching impact beyond the pockets of coal executives and taxpayers benefiting from federal leases.
“The average age of coal miners is about 55 years old,” said Mike Johnson, a union officer from Montana “They’re too old to retrain and try to start a new career. They’re too young to retire. It’s a very, very hard situation to have your life turned around like that.”
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- On June 15, 2016