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FARMINGTON — U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials came to town on Thursday to hear the public's ideas on modernizing the agency's federal coal program and, instead, got an earful about ending it.

More than 100 people filled a conference room at the Courtyard by Marriott, where the meeting was held with the stated agenda of whether coal companies should be charged more to mine on federal lands. But a vast majority of those present expressed their desire to see the agency get out of the coal business, citing such concerns as climate change, pollution, and high rates of asthma and cancer.

Colleen Cooley of Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, said the federal agency was using the single meeting here as an excuse to claim the public had been sufficiently consulted. She said the agency should end public-land coal mining leases since the Navajo people have yet to see any tangible benefits from coal sales.

"Our lands are being auctioned off to coal companies for pennies," Cooley said. "Our communities, specifically Diné tribe, have not prospered from coal for the last 50-plus years. Poverty and unemployment, we're still at 50 percent unemployment, we're still at poverty-level conditions ... We need to start transitioning to cleaner energy now."

Rebecca Sobel, climate and energy organizer with the Santa Fe chapter of WildEarth Guardians, said a fair return on coal would only come by keeping it in the ground.

"It's time to come up with a plan for keeping our publicly owned coal in the ground," Sobel said. "With careful planning, we can ensure that jobs and communities will stay intact, our electricity supply will not be disrupted, and carbon emissions linked to publicly owned coal will be meaningfully reduced. But none of this will happen unless and until you honestly and explicitly tell the American public that it's time to end the federal coal program."

BLM Director Neil Kornze said at the opening of the meeting that the agency is in the early stages of making changes to the program, which was prompted by Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell's call for "an honest and open conversation about modernizing the federal coal program." Members of Congress, the Government Accountability Office, the U.S. Department of Commerce's Office of Inspector General and outside groups have raised questions over the government's oversight of coal on public lands, Kornze said.

The meeting on Thursday was the last of five listening sessions that began last month in Washington, D.C.. Other stops took place in coal-rich areas in Western states.

"Are we striking the right balance between development and conservation?" Kornze asked. "Are we doing enough to make sure that the American taxpayer, including here in Farmington and throughout New Mexico, that those people are getting the return that they are due from the natural resources that they own as American citizens?"

Others were in favor of raising the royalty rate charged to coal companies for coal. Kornze has said that most Americans might be surprised to learn that a ton of coal from federal lands can be purchased for as little as $1.

Todd Brown, a town councilor from Telluride, Colo., said royalty rates are too low, and loopholes that allow companies to buy coal cheaply and sell at profit should be stopped.

"Now's the time for the federal government to ensure that a fair return from coal is collected and to invest those resources in climate-change adaptation and mitigation strategies," Brown said. "We're a society that consumes energy, and we're not going to change that quickly, nor effect sudden changes in usage of fossil fuels, but your efforts can bring about longer-term change in the economic balance of energy sources."

A 2012 report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis found that taxpayers missed out on nearly $30 billion in lost revenues over 30 years because the BLM failed to get fair market value for U.S.-owned coal from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming.

Last year, more than 12 million tons of publicly owned coal were mined in New Mexico, according to the BLM.

People who missed Thursday's meeting can email written comments over the coal program to the BLM to blm_wo_coal_comments@blm.gov by Sept. 17.

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and jfenton@daily-times.com. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.

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