The Hill: Trump administration ends Obama’s coal-leasing freeze

The Interior Department on Wednesday officially rolled back a major Obama administration coal initiative. 

Secretary Ryan Zinke formally lifted the ban on new coal leasing on federal land, a policy shift that was one of the cornerstones of the climate and energy executive order that President Trump signed on Tuesday. 

Interior also suspended a review of federal coal-leasing rates that the Obama administration and environmental activists had touted as a win-win for the climate and for taxpayers.

But Zinke said he is still committed to one of the basic goals of that review, which was establishing an Interior Department task force to consider raising royalty rates for coal mining. 

The order, while fulfilling a key campaign promise from Trump, generated swift opposition from environmentalists and public lands supporters, who immediately sued over the order lifting the coal-leasing moratorium. 

The groups say the in-depth study of the coal program was justified by science and by simple economic facts.  

“Those facts caused the Obama administration to believe that reforms to the federal coal leasing program were warranted, and in fact they should consider whether to continue federal coal leasing altogether,” said Jenny Harbine, a staff attorney at Earthjustice, representing the groups. The plaintiffs on the suit include national organizations like the Center for Biological Diversity and local groups like the Montana Environmental Information Center.

“Secretary Zinke has to confront those same facts. Rather than confront them with science and reason, the Trump administration is confronting those facts with politics.” 

Throughout his campaign, Trump vowed to help coal miners by lifting Obama regulations on fossil fuel production. 

For industry supporters, the coal moratorium was among the most egregious examples of Obama administration overreach.

The Interior Department, then led by Sally Jewell, paused the sale of new coal leases on federal land in 2016 and launched a review of the coal program.

That study looked to ensure that leasing royalty rates properly account for the climate impact of burning the coal mined on federal lands. Officials said the review was a matter of fairness for taxpayers: The rates haven’t gone up in three decades, even though mining on federal lands accounts for 40 percent of all coal produced in the United States. 

Mining groups and Republicans slammed Obama for the coal review, saying it would hamstring an industry that has already suffered from declining demand on the open market. 

Lifting the moratorium, industry supporters say, will help miners in Western states where there are large tracts of recoverable coal on public land.  

“It’s providing some certainty,” Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said. “These regulations continue to just compound and further exacerbate a difficult situation with low natural gas prices for the coal industry. Now there’s new hope.”

Opponents of Zinke’s action say lifting the moratorium undermines the goals of Obama’s review by allowing the payment of royalty rates that are decades out of date.

“In lifting the moratorium now, they’re opening the door to new leases that will lock in the royalty rates that have already been found to be unfair to U.S. taxpayers,” Harbine said.

“They are locking in those really disastrous leases before they’ve even completed that consideration.” 

Zinke vowed Wednesday to continue researching royalty and rent rates for federal coal mining. His office established a royalty policy committee to weigh in on rates for federal energy production and didn’t preclude the possibility of raising those rates in the future. 

“I want to make sure how we value [coal] and our rents are transparent … and the taxpayer is getting fair value from assets that are on public lands,” Zinke said. 

Anti-fossil fuel activists dispute the Trump administration’s argument that his order will be a boon for coal mining.

They say Trump’s order doesn’t change the underlying market challenges facing the coal sector, and even Zinke acknowledged leasing decisions would have to follow demand from mining firms themselves.   

“There has been, I would say, not a rush in the last few years for coal leases,” Zinke said Wednesday, blaming both the energy market and federal regulations. 

“We’ll see where the market goes, and we’ll be prepared to process them as we open up the areas for lease, and we’ll see.”