Guest opinion: Update of coal program long overdue
On June 23, the Department of the Interior held a hearing in Grand Junction to receive comments from the public about its recently announced comprehensive review of the federal coal leasing program. While the review is underway, no new leases will be issued on federal lands.
The review also comes at a time when the coal industry is in the midst of transition and demand for coal is at an historic low thanks to a glut of cheap natural gas.
Interior’s decision means that the program will be reviewed for the first time in more than 30 years. Unfortunately, the current law is outdated and environmentally irresponsible and contains gaping loopholes that have allowed coal companies to cheat taxpayers out of revenue and to avoid government accountability.
Coloradans should care about the undervaluing of federal coal. The seven coal mines currently producing on federal land in Colorado encompass some 60,000 acres and accounted for 18.5 million tons of coal produced in 2015, worth roughly $740 million. This generated about $44 million in royalties, half of which goes to the state. Over the last decade, Colorado has received only $235 million for its share of the royalties from federal coal.
The Interior Department last reviewed the coal program during the Reagan administration after investigations demonstrated that taxpayers were being shortchanged. In response, Congress enacted a series of changes to the system, requiring competition for federal leases and implementing the concept of fair market value for federal coal. But the Interior Department initiated another review in the 1980s after reports that federal leases were once again being undersold on the open market.
And yet, here we are again. Both the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, and the inspector general of the Interior Department issued reports in 2013 again expressing concerns about the federal coal program, particularly the leasing process and fair market value. One finding — that 90 percent of lease sales receive bids from only one bidder, typically the operator of a mine adjacent to the new lease — shows the federal coal program bears little resemblance to the one envisioned by Congress.
A full review of our federal coal program will help ensure that taxpayers in Colorado and other states receive a fair price for federal coal. What’s more, the review will help establish safeguards to better protect public lands, streams and wildlife we all love and that are so critical to the healing process for veterans when they return from deployment.
An updated program would also be in line with Colorado values: Recent polling found that an overwhelming number of Coloradans (66 percent) support changes to the federal coal program, and 63 percent of Colorado residents oppose issuing new mining leases to companies that have failed to clean up areas they have mined in the past.
We urge our fellow Coloradans to support of reforms that will help protect public lands and bring us closer to a system that is fair and equitable for all.
Jill Lancelot is a Denver resident and the cofounder of Taxpayers for Common Sense. Garett Reppenhagen is a former U.S. Army sniper and the Rocky Mountain coordinator for the Vet Voice Foundation. He lives in Park County.
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