The question of whether to allow more coal mining on federal land brings up one of the oldest and most contentious debates in the West — and it’s part of a push to invigorate the U.S. coal industry and more broadly exploit commercial opportunities on public lands.
DECKER, Mont. — The Trump administration is wading into one of the oldest and most contentious debates in the West by encouraging more coal mining on lands owned by the federal government — part of an aggressive push to both invigorate the struggling U.S. coal industry and more broadly exploit commercial opportunities on public lands.
The intervention has roiled conservationists and many Democrats, exposing deep divisions about how best to manage the 643 million acres of federally owned land — most of which is in the West — an area more than six times the size of California. Not since the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion during the Reagan administration have companies and individuals with economic interests in the lands, mining companies among them, held such a strong upper hand.
Clouds of dust blew across the horizon one recent summer evening as a crane taller than the Statue of Liberty ripped apart walls of a canyon dug deep into the public lands here in the Powder River Basin, the nation’s most productive coal mining region. The mine pushes right up against a reservoir, exposing the kind of conflicts and concerns the new approach has sparked.
“If we don’t have good water, we can’t do anything,” said Art Hayes, a cattle rancher who worries that more mining would foul a supply that generations of ranchers have relied upon.
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During the Obama administration, the Interior Department seized on the issue of climate change and temporarily banned new coal leases on public lands as it examined the consequences for the environment. The Obama administration also drew protests from major mining companies by ordering them to pay higher royalties to the government.
President Donald Trump, along with roundly questioning climate change, has moved quickly to wipe out those measures with the support of coal companies and other commercial interests. Separately, Trump’s Interior Department is drawing up plans to reduce wilderness and historic areas that are now protected as national monuments, creating even more opportunities for profit.
Richard Reavey, the head of government relations for Cloud Peak Energy, which operates a strip mine here that sends coal to the Midwest and increasingly to coal-burning power plants in Asia, said Trump’s change of course was meant to correct wrongs of the past.
The Obama administration, he said, had become intent on killing the coal industry, and had used federal lands as a cudgel to restrict exports. The only avenues of growth currently, given the shutdown of so many coal-burning power plants in the United States, are markets overseas.
“Their goal, in collusion with the environmentalists, was to drive us out of the export business,” Reavey said.
Even with the moves so far, the prospect of coal companies operating in a big way on federal land — and for any major job growth — is dim, in part because environmentalists have blocked construction of a coal export terminal, and there is limited capacity at the port the companies use in Vancouver.
Competition from other global suppliers offering coal to Asian power plants is also intense.
But at least for now, coal production and exports are rising in the Powder River Basin after a major decline last year.
Opponents of the Trump administration’s direction have already gone to court. New Mexico and California sued in April to undo the rollback in royalties that coal mines pay, while ranchers like Hayes and the Cheyenne tribe joined a lawsuit in March challenging the repeal of a year-old moratorium on federal coal leasing.
“If we hand over control of these lands to a narrow range of special interests, we lose an iconic part of the country — and the West’s identity,” said Chris Saeger, executive director of the Montana-based environmental group Western Values Project, referring to coal mining and oil and gas drilling that the Interior Department is moving to rapidly expand.
Trump’s point man is Ryan Zinke, a native Montanan who rode a horse to work on his first day as head of the Interior Department. A former member of the Navy SEALs and Republican congressman, Zinke oversees the national park system, as well as the Bureau of Land Management, which controls 250 million acres nationwide, parts of which are used to produce oil, gas, coal, lumber and hay.
In late June, Zinke visited Whitefish, Montana, to attend a meeting of Western governors, where he vowed to find a balance between extracting commodities from federal lands and protecting them.
“Our greatest treasures are public lands,” Zinke said in a speech. “It is not a partisan issue. It is an American issue.”
Afterward, protesters from the Sierra Club and other groups held a rally in the town square against the actions taken by Zinke during his first months on the job, chanting “Shame!” and “Liar!” and carrying signs opposing his policies.
During President Barack Obama’s second term, the coal industry’s chief antagonist was Sally Jewell, a former oil industry engineer appointed Interior secretary in 2013.
Jewell took steps to change the relationship between coal companies and the federal government. She imposed a moratorium on new federal coal leases while beginning a three-year study of the industry’s environmental consequences. More than 40 percent of all coal mined in the United States comes from federal land, and when burned it generates roughly 10 percent of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
In addition, she called for greater transparency in the awarding of coal leases, and she backed an increase in the royalty payments made to operate coal mines on public lands.
A central problem, she said, was the lack of competitive bidding for mining leases. Another hot-button issue was how much to charge in royalties, which generate about $1 billion a year for the federal government.
Under federal rules adopted in 1920, coal companies are required to pay “not less than” 12.5 percent on sales of surface coal mined on federal lands. But for years, studies indicate, the companies paid far less because they often negotiated large royalty discounts with sympathetic federal officials.
Companies also often sell coal first to a corporate affiliate at a sharply reduced price, before reselling it to the intended customer, costing the government a chunk of its royalties, according to the Government Accountability Office study. To eliminate the loophole, the Interior Department adopted a rule last year requiring that the payment be calculated on the first arm’s length transaction, meaning sales to corporate affiliates would not count.
The coal industry was bent on killing the rule. In February, Cloud Peak and other mining industry giants asked the department to delay the rule until the industry’s lawsuit was resolved. Within days, they got their wish. The agency, reversing its position during the Obama presidency, froze the rule and told Cloud Peak and other industry lawyers that they had “raised legitimate questions.”
By late March, after Zinke was sworn in, the rollback continued. Zinke repealed Jewell’s moratorium on new coal leases, and canceled further work on the study she had ordered.
As he walked on stage at the governor’s gathering in Whitefish, Zinke exuded confidence. The United States, he argued, can and should expand energy production from its federal lands, with money earned from leases going toward repairs to roads and bridges, and at national parks.
“As Interior secretary, I am looking at both sides of our balance sheet,” Zinke said. “There is a consequence of not using some of our public land for the creation of wealth and jobs.”
Conrad Anker, a mountaineer and author, took the stage after Zinke. He said in an interview that organizers had instructed him not to mention climate change, or its effect on the glaciers at Glacier National Park. According to a federal study, the glaciers have lost as much as 85 percent of their mass over the past 50 years.
There was no such restraint on the nearby town square, where protesters flashed signs with slogans like “Zinke Sells Soul to Big Oil” and “What Would Teddy Do?” — a reference to Zinke’s statements that he admired President Theodore Roosevelt, a conservationist who helped set aside millions of acres as public land.