Over the last two months, the Department of Interior has engaged in what Secretary Sally Jewell described in March as “an honest and open conversation about modernizing the federal government’s coal program.” The time for a conversation and action is overdue and it is great to see this Secretary engaging the American public in the process to improve the program. In August, the Department of the Interior and Bureau of Land Management held listening sessions around the country to understand people’s perceptions about the function of the federal coal program.
The Wilderness Society participated in these sessions in Washington, DC, Billings, Montana, Gillette, Wyoming, Denver, Colorado, and Farmington, New Mexico. The resounding outcome of the conversation is that the American people are ready for a much needed reform to the program. In fact, 2 out of 3 speakers at these sessions made a loud and clear call for reform. This is in line with over 15 reports and studies from inside and outside the government since 1984 that have found reasons to revisit, reform, and modernize the federal coal program.
The Wilderness Society, and nearly 15,000 of our members, sent in comments over the past month urging the need for significant reforms. The reforms include a call for taxpayers to receive a fair share from resources pulled from public lands and encourage a better understanding of the carbon impacts that occur as a result of coal development on federal lands.
Right now, coal companies are paying far less in royalties and leases than the coal market would dictate. The American taxpayers are not seeing the full and fair value for their land and their resources. Coal companies should be paying 12.5% royalties on coal, but due to loopholes and deductions their effective rate is only 4.9%! The Department of the Interior is working to fix this and they should, but they should go even further and raise that 12.5%. American people are looking to their public lands for more than energy development and the current royalty rates reflect an antiquated ideology which encourages energy development.
Another important reform for the federal coal program is a better, more accurate and more transparent accounting of the impacts from coal development. An environmental assessment of the federal coal program hasn’t been conducted in over 40 years. Since then coal’s impact on the land, air, and water have become more apparent. We need to take those impacts into consideration before leases occur and rates are set. DOI and the public need to better understand the amount of carbon that will result from coal development and work to reduce the impacts that carbon will have into the future. This will ensure that impacts are accounted for and properly mitigated before coal is actually developed.
Federal coal policies have stayed stagnant for decades. Even as energy markets, energy innovation, and energy use has changed drastically in that time, there has been no movement in modernizing the federal coal program. Thankfully, this Department of the Interior and Secretary Jewell are taking an opportunity to listen to the American people and recognizing the need for a new future for federal coal. Now that the American people have spoken, now is the time for action.
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