The Hill: Interior secretary reopens federal coal mining

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has ended the federal government’s Obama-era moratorium on coal-mining leases on federal land.

Zinke signed an order repealing the pause in leases Wednesday in his Washington, D.C., office, surrounded by Republican lawmakers, lobbyists and staffers.

The action implements parts of an executive order that President Trump signed Tuesday — focused on repealing environmental policies and restrictions on energy production — under the goal of increasing energy independence.

That means the Bureau of Land Management can now resume the process of allowing new coal-mining leases on its land.

Zinke signed two other directives Wednesday to implement Trump’s policy. One kicks off a two-year review of the fees and royalties that companies pay to produce energy like oil, natural gas, coal or renewables on federal land, to see if they’re fair to lessees and taxpayers, and establishes an advisory committee, including stakeholders, to help that process.

The other orders every agency in Interior to review its policies and regulations with a goal toward increasing the country’s energy independence.

“The coal moratorium that was set in place … is a waste of money,” Zinke said shortly before signing the order in his wood-paneled office, which includes a collection of taxidermied animals and a portrait of President Teddy Roosevelt.

The coal moratorium was instituted early last year by Sally Jewell, the previous Interior secretary under former President Barack Obama. It was part of a review process Interior had launched to determine how to charge mining companies more to account for the climate change costs of the coal they took. 

Zinke said that review is being ended, because it was unnecessary.

“We feel strongly that the current process on reviewing coal is appropriate,” he said.

“Rather than doing the social cost of carbon, you have to look at the social cost of not having a job too,” he continued. “All of us want clean air and clean water. And we’re going to make sure we ensure that.”

Federal land accounts for 40 percent of the nation’s coal production and about a third of its reserves. It includes areas such as the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming, the most productive coal area in the country.

The coal from federal lands, when burned, also accounts for 13 percent of the nation’s energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, or 769 million tons annually, according to the nonprofit group Resources for the Future.

Environmental groups slammed the Trump administration’s policy, and Earthjustice and a coalition of other green organizations sued Interior immediately over the coal leasing order after Zinke signed it.

“No one voted to pollute our public lands, air or drinking water in the last election, yet the Trump administration is doing the bidding of powerful polluters as nearly its first order of business,” Earthjustice attorney Jenny Harbine, the lead litigator in the case, said in a statement.

“Our legal system remains an important backstop against the abuses of power we’ve witnessed over the course of the past two months,” she said. “That’s why we’re going to court to defend our public lands, clean air and water, and a healthy climate for all.”

Experts also doubted that Trump’s policies, taken as a whole, would have any significant effect on jobs or energy independence.

Jason Bordoff, director of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy and a former aide in Obama’s White House, accused Trump of giving coal miners “false hope.”

“We’ve seen coal production and coal employment in decline for many years now, driven by market forces. And those factors will still be there,” he told The Hill.

But Trump’s supporters cheered the moves.

“Coal is such an issue for us back home,” said Sen. Steve Daines (R), who like Zinke hails from Montana. Zinke was the state’s sole House lawmaker until taking the reins at Interior last month.

“We have more recoverable coal than any state in the United States,” Daines said after the signing. “It’s been a huge source of jobs, economic growth and, importantly, tax revenues for our schools and infrastructure. So this is good news for Montana and good news for America.”

Zinke’s secretarial order will not immediately lead to any regulations being repealed, and the coal moratorium was not a formal regulation. But, in connection with Trump’s order, it starts the process of repealing four of Interior’s oil and natural gas drilling rules for federal land: one on fracking, one limiting methane emissions, one on drilling in national parks and one on drilling in wildlife refuges.

It could also lead Interior to rewrite the 2017 through 2022 plan for leasing offshore areas for oil and natural gas extraction, as well as other policies on offshore and federal-land fossil fuel production.

“This is also a full-scale review, looking at making sure we support the president’s objective,” Zinke said of the energy independence policy.

He said producing more energy domestically is good for the environment because it’s better to produce here than in nations with lower standards. It’s also good for the 6.4 million jobs that rely on the energy industry, and for the world’s security, Zinke maintained.

“The world is much safer when America is strong, and energy independence is what makes it strong,” he said.