Over the past several weeks, the Department of the Interior held public hearings across the country 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 is timely: The coal industry is in transition and demand for coal is at an historic low thanks to a glut of cheap natural gas.
The review of the program is the first in more than 30 years. Clearly, the current rules are is outdated and environmentally irresponsible. Gaping loopholes allow coal companies to cheat taxpayers out of revenue and avoid government accountability — to the tune of $1 billion in lost revenue a year for the past 30 years.
The Interior Department last reviewed the coal program during the Reagan Administration after investigations demonstrated taxpayers were being seriously 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. In the 1980s, the Interior Department launched another review after reports that federal leases were once again being undervalued 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. They criticized the leasing process and questioned whether taxpayers were getting fair market value from coal production on public lands. In reality, bidding is a farce and the coal program bears little resemblance to the one envisioned by Congress. One government finding revealed, for instance, that 90 percent of lease sales received bids from only one bidder — typically the operator of a mine adjacent to the new lease.
A full review of the coal program will help ensure that taxpayers 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 Americans’ values: Recent polling found that 64 percent of voters in Western coal states support updating the coal-leasing program, and two-thirds say those leases should not go to companies that haven’t cleaned up former mining sites.
The Interior Department is considering public feedback as it works to finalize its plan. We urge our fellow Americans to make their voices heard in support of reforms that will help protect public lands and bring us closer to a system that is fair and equitable for all.
Ryan Alexander is the President of Taxpayers for Common Sense. Rick Hegdahl is the Pacific Northwest Director for the Vet Voice Foundation.