Alpha Natural Resources' Belle Ayr mine is one of the oldest large strip mines in Wyoming's Powder River Basin. The Interior Department will review the federal coal leasing program that mines like Belle Ayr depend on for coal reserves. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Both pro- and not-so-pro coal advocates gather in Casper today as Department of Interior officials take public comment on a pending review of the federal coal leasing program.

The meeting is from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Casper Events Center. A live stream of the event can be accessed here.

At issue is how the Interior values and leases vast amounts of publicly owned coal — which places Wyoming at the center of debate because it is by far the nation’s largest coal producer.

The Obama administration in January imposed a moratorium on federal coal leasing and instructed the Interior conduct a full review of the program. The pending review will analyze whether the public receives a fair return on federally owned coal, as well as the climate and economic impacts of mining and burning coal.

Several groups organized rallies that will take place this morning before the meeting convenes, including the Wyoming Mining Association and the Wyoming chapter of Friends of Coal. Wyoming members of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, as well as other environmental groups, planned rallies of their own.

“There’s a lot of coal to be mined, so if the leasing process could be simplified it would make it a lot easier for us,” Cloud Peak Energy spokeswoman and rally organizer Michelle Butler said.

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It can take seven years to lease a federal tract of coal in the Powder River Basin due to the extensive review and environmental analysis process. Butler said that’s a hindrance to Wyoming’s coal industry, and any changes to the federal leasing program ought to be aimed at streamlining the process. “From Cloud Peak’s perspective we feel like this just represents BLM’s keep-it-in-the-ground campaign, and it’s bad for the economy, it’s bad for taxpayers, and bad for coal miners.”

The federal coal leasing moratorium will last an estimated three years, and won’t be lifted until potential reforms of the leasing program are implemented.

Yet coal companies themselves began withdrawing their coal lease nominations years before the Obama administration issued the moratorium in January. The last federal coal tract sold in Wyoming was in 2012 — evidence of a dynamic shift in the nation’s energy markets that experts attribute to many factors besides federal regulations.

Groups that want to see a reduction in coal burning say now is a critical time to analyze federal coal leasing and tie the program to a national energy policy that places an emphasis on climate change and sustainable energy.

“I think Wyoming needs to look into transitioning into a more sustainable energy market instead of the boom-and-bust cycle we’ve been in,” Citizens’ Climate Lobby member Wesley Frain said.

Frain, of Cheyenne, worries that Wyoming communities risk the type of economic crash experienced in West Virginia. “We should try to get more tourism,” Frain said, “and still be an energy state.” Wyoming should foster more renewable energy development, and rely less on coal. Frain said he realizes many families in Wyoming coal communities wonder where their next paychecks will come from, but “what about where your kid will get his paycheck,” he said.

A review of the federal coal leasing program is overdue and shouldn’t be regarded as a threat to the industry, said Bob LeResche, chairman of the Powder River Basin Resource Council.

“The last two presidential administrations that reviewed the program were Nixon and Reagan,” LeResche said.

Analyses by the Government Accountability Office and others have highlighted deficiencies in the program. LeResche said it’s time to make sure that it operates in the best interest of all American taxpayers rather than a few corporate interests.

“The future isn’t going to be what some people want it to be. It’s going to be something else — less use of coal, more control for global warming. But hopefully there’s still a fairly healthy coal economy.”

Read the Interior’s fact sheet on the federal coal leasing program review:


Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. I, for one, am tired of hazy mountains day in and day out. The more you all fight to protect coal the longer it is going to take to switch. The need for clean air trumps your want to dig, in my humble (cough,cough) opinion. My children and grandchildren breathing well is WAY more important than your want to streamline your permit process. You can’t even sell it to China anymore! They have more renewables than we do! Right now THEY have a growing renewable sector that makes America look like a dirty dog rolling in its own filth. The longer Cloud Peak keeps lying to its workers and keeps paying off our politicians we will never move forward. They should be using that lobby money to help employees move on to bigger and better things. They shouldn’t be making it harder on them AND then making the state pick up any bills they don’t want to pay. You know they will, just like every other “developer”, claim bankruptcy and leave it a mess for the next person.