Column: We Want to Hear From All Americans on Coal

Sally Jewell
The Daily Times

America is blessed with an abundance of natural resources. As our nation undergoes a rapid energy transformation that is leading to a lower carbon economy, coal will continue to be a major source of power well into the future, even as other sources of energy increase and our nation becomes more energy efficient.

Coal currently generates about 39 percent of America's electricity, and 41 percent of that comes from public lands that belong to all Americans. As stewards of these resources, the Interior Department must ensure that development is done in the right ways and in the right places — safely, responsibly, taking into account environmental impacts while supporting jobs in local communities and maximizing the benefits to society.

The integrity of the federal coal program has come under increased scrutiny in recent years from private citizens, public interest groups, states and members of Congress from both parties. Many have called for a more competitive bidding system to sell coal at true market value. Critical studies from the Government Accountability Office and Interior's Inspector General have made it clear that we could be getting a better return for taxpayers.

For instance, most Americans would be surprised to know that coal companies can make a winning bid for less than one dollar a ton to mine taxpayer-owned coal or that some leases only receive bid from a single company. Still others, including a former Montana Director of Revenue, have questioned whether loopholes in the current valuation system are shortchanging American taxpayers from receiving the full royalties they are due.

These are complex issues and that's why we have called for an honest, open dialogue about modernizing the federal coal program. As part of that effort, we have hosted five listening sessions around the country – including one this week in Farmington, with Bureau of Land Management Director Neil Kornze — to learn how we can improve the leasing and revenue collection processes to better ensure we are meeting our mandated responsibilities.

Among the tough questions that need to be asked: How are local communities impacted by regulatory and market-driven changes to coal production, particularly in rural areas? Is the coal program consistent with the nation's position as a leader on energy and climate change? How can the program be made more transparent and competitive? Are American taxpayers getting a good — and fair — deal from the sale of these public assets?

We are taking this seriously and have already taken a number of steps to address these complex issues. Last year, the BLM updated its guidance for how the agency should determine fair market value for coal during the leasing process, and it now requires an independent review of appraisal reports. Interior's Office of Natural Resources Revenue also published a proposal to explore how royalties are calculated for coal. In July, Interior's Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement issued a proposal to modernize the way coal mining operations protect community water sources and restore streams and forests to a healthy condition.

These issues affect a wide range of citizens — from hard working coal miners and their families to industry officials and energy corporations, local communities, tribes, state and federal agencies, taxpayers and conservationists.

We need to hear from everyone as we look at the full range of policy options to improve how best to manage the coal resources on public lands that belong to all Americans. We are proceeding deliberatively and are committed to hearing the viewpoints of all stakeholders because we need to get this right.

This is not a partisan issue. Our efforts are squarely focused on responsibly managing the nation's energy resources, protecting taxpayer interests and getting a fair return to our citizens when public assets are sold. These are goals that both Democrats and Republicans across the spectrum should be able to agree on.

Sally Jewell is the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Shaun Donovan is the Director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.