Will Trump’s Interior pick Ryan Zinke undo federal coal reforms?

Coal burned from public lands contributes to 13 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. 

Photo: Mason Cummings/TWS

Trump’s selection of Ryan Zinke could threaten recent progress to reduce pollution and taxpayer abuse in the federal coal leasing program.

The Interior Department released a draft report on Jan. 11 of actions the next administration needs to take to ensure recent reforms of coal mining on federal lands continue.

If confirmed to lead the Interior Department, Zinke will have the option to follow the possible reforms in the report or ignore the report and lift the pause on new coal leasing on federal lands. He could even ramp up coal leasing that threatens cherished landscapes. For example, he could chose to allow the expansion of the Alton Coal Mine in southwestern Utah bordering Bryce and Zion national parks. Given Trump’s campaign promises to redirect energy development to dirty fossil fuels, the chances of Zinke following the recommendations are in doubt.

The Alton Coal Mine is southwestern Utah could be expanded, despite its borders with Bryce and Zion national parks. Photo: SUWA

Among the possible reforms discussed and mentioned in the draft report are:

  • An increase in royalty rates and other reforms to ensure a fair return to taxpayers
  • Making sure carbon pollution impacts from coal mining are paid for by coal companies
  • Holding coal companies accountable for environmental impacts—companies with a poor environmental record should not be able to lease more coal
  • Taking the process of leasing land for coal out of the hands of the coal companies and into the hands of land management experts

If Zinke does not follow through on any of the options set forth in the report, he’ll be ignoring the wishes of the American public who have weighed in overwhelmingly in favor of reforms via a required public comment process held in 2016. In fact, 91 percent of the quarter million comments submitted by the public during this process supported reforms.

 Ask your senators to hold Rep. Zinke accountable for coal reform

Our coal program on public lands is in desperate need of change. Coal mining is destructive to our landscapes, and the American people are on the hook for billions of dollars in lost revenue due to below market coal sales and millions of dollars in clean-up costs. Coal is a significant contributor to climate change, with coal burned from public lands contributing to 13 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Our federal coal program is outdated and puts the needs of industry before the environment and American people. Photo: Mason Cummings/TWS

The draft report presents important potential policy changes to the federal coal program that could finally put the American people and the environment before the well-being of coal companies and executives. After a pause on new coal leasing last January and an in-depth review of the program starting in March 2016, the Interior Department now releases a “draft scoping report” that outlines recommended changes and further analysis on the federal coal program.

Big progress could quickly be undone

Among reversing major victories on climate change and energy, President-elect Trump has promised to “unleash” coal, oil and gas production on public lands as he makes big and vague promises to coal communities despite a continuing downturn of coal markets and consumption.

Already there are many fundamental failings with the current federal coal program that need to be immediately addressed. Right now, the program is set up to benefit coal companies through subsidies and loopholes, while harming lands, taxpayers and the climate.

Zinke’s bad track record on coal

Nominated Interior Department Rep. Ryan Zinke’s track record on coal is a cause for alarm, as it backtracks on the crucial steps in reforming coal that have taken place this past year.

Nominated for Interior Secretary, Zinke could put us back on track for exploiting sensitive wildlands for fossil fuels. Photo: Gage Skidmore, flickr

On one hand, Zinke has called himself a “Teddy Roosevelt conservationist” and says he wishes to keep federal lands in the hands of the government. On the other hand, his actions and rhetoric on coal favor governmental life support of what would otherwise be a dying industry.

In May 2016, Zinke wrote and introduced a bill to delay the review of the federal coal program before it could even begin.

This failed bill would have given a committee veto power over reforms proposed by federal managers. What that means is that this bill put the interest of our public lands into the hands of the oil and gas industry and goes against Zinke’s words on keeping the fate of federal lands in the hands of the American people.

A herd of pronghorn pass by the Craig Generating Station, Colorado, which burns coal from public lands. Photo: Mason Cummings/TWS

And in June 2015, Zinke sought to stop the Obama administration from closing a loophole coal companies use to skirt royalty payments for leases of public lands. 

It is common practice for five of the largest coal companies in Wyoming’s and Montana’s Powder River Basin to evade royalty payments by creating a network of shell companies, a 2015 Center for American Progress report found. The current reform seeks to stop shady practices like these that allow coal companies to profit at the expense of the American people and public lands.

It’s an uphill battle for public lands

We are at a crucial junction of how we develop energy on public lands. Recent progress to transition from fossil fuels could quickly unravel with the “energy above all else” mentality on public lands.


Now, we need you to strongly urge our elected officials to get Rep. Zinke on the record for keeping public lands open for all—not turning them over to the coal industry.