Hundreds of people attended a Department of Interior meeting in Casper on Tuesday where officials collected public comment on potential changes to the federal coal leasing program — the foundation of Wyoming’s multi-billion dollar coal industry.
Stakes are high as the pending review of the program may determine no less than the future of Wyoming’s coal industry, as well as the nation’s energy and climate policy.
If there’s one thing Wyoming coal proponents and their declared adversaries agreed on it was that recent job losses and the new economic reality of a diminished coal industry hurts miners, families, and their communities — and that something needs to be done about it.
From there, perspectives diverge.
Either the Obama administration should end its political ploy to foolishly and illegally wipe coal from the nation’s energy picture, or the administration should correct mismanagement of publicly-owned coal to address climate change and pave the road to a more sustainable energy future.
“Really what this is all about, isn’t it, is destroying confidence in the [coal] industry so nobody will invest in coal companies,” U.S. House of Representatives candidate Rex Rammell (R) said. “I think the only solution to this whole problem is to transfer public lands from the federal government back [sic] to the state. And with it the abolition of the Department of the Interior … and we can have control over our future.”
“A good planet is really hard to find,” University of Wyoming professor emeritus Duane Keown said. Given the need to head off the worst case scenarios of a rapidly heating planet, and the role that burning Wyoming coal plays, Keown continued, the federal government should consider ending leasing coal altogether.
“The argument goes that Earth has natural heating and cooling cycles,” he said. “Yes, but they occurred over hundreds of thousands or millions of years. Not two hundred years. The pika or pollinators of food crops do not have this luxury. Nor do we.”
Federal officials heard very little common ground from about 100 people who spoke at the meeting — many who traveled hundreds of miles and spent the entire day for the opportunity to possibly persuade federal officials on the future of coal. Dozens of speakers were employed by Gillette-based coal company Cloud Peak Energy. Several described what they consider a hostile, politically motivated attack on coal — an affront to an industry and community that gets little thanks for providing affordable and reliable energy to the nation.
Cloud Peak miner Penny Russell said that each mining job in northeast Wyoming supports an extended family, and that many families there have lost their main source of income along with their self-esteem — for no valid reason other than an agenda to kill coal.
“We don’t want to be forced into a welfare state, however the likelihood of [avoiding] that appears to be waning,” Russell said.
Others described the federal government as complicit in allowing the coal leasing program to be hijacked by a few coal corporations. The energy companies, they argue, have no regard for the climate, nor for dedicated miners now being laid off while CEOs of bankrupt companies pay themselves millions of dollars in bonuses.
“Sen. Enzi says coal supports families, and I agree,” House District 56 candidate Dan Neal (D) said. “But it’s the resource and not always the companies. They are fiduciarily responsible to their shareholders, and we’ve seen them take home millions of dollars while they plot to take away pensions and benefits.”
Stakeholders at the hearing also held dueling rallies for and against a return to coal’s starring role in the nation’s energy picture.
Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell’s true intent with the federal coal leasing review “is to stick a knife in our backs,” Cloud Peak Energy vice president of public affairs Richard Reavey told pro-coal rally-goers.
He continued, “Yet again, here we are at another Soviet-style show trial where the verdict is already decided.”
Wyoming Mining Association assistant director Travis Deti delivered a fiery speech to pro-coal rally-goers mocking concerns over climate change and insisting that the science is “doctored.”
“We’ll hear about how the science is settled,” Deti said, “which is their way of saying ‘shut up.’”
Deti continued, “In addition to raising royalty rates to crippling levels, the agency intends the incorporation of the social costs of carbon — whatever the hell that even means — in calculating fair market value for leased coal driving up the cost of leases even higher.”
Five more public scoping meetings are scheduled across the country to gather public input regarding the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement on Federal Coal Program. Visit the Bureau of Land Management website for details.