Coal Listening Session Kickoff in DC Validates the Need for Reform

By Joshua Mantell

On Wednesday, July 29, the Bureau of Land Management kicked off their listening sessions to hear local community input about reforming the federal coal leasing program - marking an opportunity for modernizing an outdated program.

 Federal coal supplies 42% of our nations coal, contributes 24% of all energy-related greenhouse gas emissions yet for decades, the coal industry has been living on artificially low rates for extracting our shared public resources. Despite the change in the U.S. energy markets and federal land uses, the coal industry profits.

 It’s time for the federal government to modernize how we develop energy on public lands. There are several smart ways to do it:

  • Currently, coal companies pay low royalties on the resources they extract. The BLM needs to raise the royalty rates to incentivize smarter energy policy, as well as close loopholes to prevent companies selling shares to subsidiaries.
  • The BLM needs to take money from royalties to help avoid and offset impacts from development. We need to be taking a landscape level approach to energy development as we modernize our uses of federal lands.
  •  Coal companies need to be held responsible for clean-up after using the land, but frequently they don’t have the money to clean up their own mess. Companies need to be able to pay upfront bonds to ensure that companies can reclaim the land they lease. 

 After the first coal listening session, it is clear that the time is now to reform and modernize the federal coal program.  In March and again at the listening session in July, Secretary Sally Jewell made clear that the Department of the Interior was intent on looking closely at the federal coal program. She said, “It’s important to have an honest and open conversation about modernizing the federal government’s coal program.”  And during the listening session we heard from a diverse group of stakeholders, from conservation organizations, to students, taxpayer advocates and business owners all saying the same thing – it is time to reform the outdated federal coal program. There was a large outpouring of support for BLM and DOI’s efforts to modernize the way we develop energy on our public lands.

Even Congress is looking to modernize coal production. Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) have introduced The Coal Royalty Fairness and Communities Investment Act. Their bill takes an important step towards paying back the local communities who are too often left out of the conversation and carry a disproportionate burden living next to development, whose regulations were written back when speakeasies were in vogue and the Model T was the hottest car on the road.

It is great that the federal government is looking to the American people for how to modernize energy development on federal lands. Currently, the Department of Interior is looking at how to best site renewable energy on public lands, increase royalty rates on oil and gas development on federal lands, and reduce methane pollution and wasted gas. A holistic look at the federal coal program fits into this frame. There will be more opportunities to talk about the coal program throughout August across the country. Now is the time for Americans to tell their stories about the importance of shifting energy development on federal lands to a 21st century approach.

Katie Breen also contributed to this article.