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NMA testifies on US federal coal leasing programme

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World Coal,

On 11 July, Hal Quinn, National Mining Association (NMA) President and CEO, testified on the importance of the federal coal leasing programme – a programme that provides hundreds of millions of dollars of federal, state and local revenue per year, while providing a low cost, reliable source of energy for all Americans.

In his remarks before the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee, Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, Quinn said, in part: “The federal coal programme has been a national energy and economic success story. It provides hundreds of millions of dollars of federal, state and local revenue per year, while also providing a low cost, reliable source of energy for all Americans.

“Unfortunately, in recent years, there have been misguided efforts to derail the programme. The leasing moratorium announced in January 2016 by former Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell, for example, was based upon pretext and politics. None of the reasons she provided for taking such a drastic and disruptive action survive an encounter with the facts.

“The reasons offered for the moratorium are devoid of any real evidence, lack any analytical rigor and are simply a collection of the contrived claims both she and her predecessor previously rejected. Federal coal production provides a fair return to the public with almost US$14 billion in federal royalties, acquisition fees and rentals paid between 2003 - 2014 alone. Some argue that federal royalties are too low. However, they are substantially higher than rates for private coal in the East, and federal coal producers also pay bonus bids and surface rentals. Federal, state and local governments receive about 38 cents of every dollar on the sale of each tonne of coal produced in the Powder River Basin.

“If the Secretary really believed that certain issues with the programme deserved further evaluation, nothing prevented her from proceeding to do so without imposing the drastic measure of halting coal leasing. And, this is what is so puzzling, to say the least, about a recent court ruling that the Department of Interior was obligated to conduct a NEPA analysis before Secretary Zinke’s order lifting the moratorium. It seems backwards.

“Following the court’s reasoning, if any action was subject to NEPA, it would be Secretary Jewell’s decision to halt leasing. The moratorium order was the classic leap first and promise to look later at the consequences. On the other hand, Secretary Zinke’s order merely ceased what Secretary Jewell characterized as a wholly voluntary programmatic review which, as all the evidence demonstrates, is unjustified and unnecessary.”


In January 2016, former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell issued an order halting federal coal leasing while the Interior Department undertook a voluntary review of the coal leasing programme and conducted a voluntary programmatic environmental impact statement (EIS).

In March 2017, Trump administration Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke lifted the moratorium on coal leasing, ending the prior administration’s discretionary and exploratory process – a process that the agency itself started. In lifting the temporary suspension, the agency took no actions that would trigger the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

In June 2018, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit agreed, ruling that the Interior Department was under no obligation to conduct a programmatic EIS on the programme. The Department completed a programmatic EIS for the current coal leasing programme and has continually conducted NEPA reviews for coal leasing on both regional and site-specific bases. Moreover, NEPA reviews are also conducted prior to any mining on a lease when the Department reviews the mine plan submitted by the mine operator under the Federal Coal Leasing Act.

Unfortunately, in April 2019, in a sharp departure from precedent on the types of federal agency actions that trigger NEPA, a federal district court in Montana ruled that a NEPA review was required before former Sec. discontinuing a voluntary programmatic environmental analysis. This ruling not only contradicts the prior DC Circuit ruling, but ignores the fact that under the court’s reasoning the real action violating NEPA was former Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell’s order halting federal coal leasing, not Secretary Zinke’s action lifting the agency’s own voluntary pause on leasing. The court’s decision casts considerable uncertainty over the ability of the federal agencies to adopt policies that traditionally have been considered to be solely within their discretion.

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