Coal Tattoo

Obama to continue push for coalfield aid

President Barack Obama speaks at a town hall styled event at McKinley Senior High School in Baton Rouge, La., Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

There’s big news coming today about the federal coal-leasing program, with an Interior Department press conference planned later this morning and this report out from The Wall Street Journal:

The Obama administration plans to announce Friday that it is going to change the way the federal government handles coal leases on public lands, the latest step in President Barack Obama’s plan to address climate change, according to a congressional aide.

The administration is also expected to put in place a moratorium on at least some new coal leasing until the Interior Department conducts a broad environmental review, which could include coal mining’s impact on climate change, wildlife and other environmental issues. An Interior Department representative didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

As the Journal noted, this is following up on President Obama’s comments earlier this week in his final State of the Union address:

Now we’ve got to accelerate the transition away from dirty energy.  Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future – especially in communities that rely on fossil fuels.  That’s why I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet.

At the same time, the administration is also making clear that it plans to continue a major push to help coalfield communities in Appalachia that are struggling through the industry’s continuing downturn.  White House officials told me this week that the upcoming budget proposal for next financial year would include more funding for the Power Plus Plan.

Readers will recall that last year, President Obama included significant funding in his budget proposal to help coalfield communities, including $1 billion in new spending over five years to clean up abandoned strip mines, additional funding for research on carbon capture technology for power plants, and nearly $4 billion over 10 yeas to protect the health and retirement benefits of retired coal miners.

Congress came through with some money for some of these projects, such as a $90 million pilot project for abandoned mine cleanups, $50 million for the Appalachian Regional Commission, and $15 million to the Economic Development Administration for projects and grants under Power Plus.

While the full budget proposal won’t be public until next month, White House officials say that it will include proposing to continue the additional money for the Appalachian Regional Commission, along with more money for other components of the administration’s coalfield aid plan.

“We expect to come out of the gate pretty strong,” one White House official told me. “We are going to be making this a priority for us.”

Regarding the coal lease issue, while it’s true that it affects western mining operations almost exclusively, some groups have argued that improvements in federal leasing practices could also generate funds to help struggling Appalachian coal communities

Of course, these matters have not gotten a lot of traction with West Virginia’s congressional delegation. Sometimes, they seem so intent on spending all their time bashing President Obama that they don’t even notice these kinds of proposals. For example, here’s what E&E Daily recently reported Sen. Joe Manchin saying after the State of the Union:

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) was critical of the speech, saying he hasn’t seen anything yet from the administration that would help displaced coal workers. Instead, Manchin said, Obama has “destroyed us.”

“The energy he’s talked about made us the greatest nation on Earth,” Manchin said. “That being said, we’re willing to change, we’re willing to transition, we want to find the new technology. We’d like to help the government help us develop it. So let’s see what he has in store.”

Coal industry supporters, are of course, going to jump on today’s announcement, but it’s important to note, as The New York Times story does:

… Companies can continue to mine the coal reserves under lease, estimated to be enough to sustain current levels of production from federal land for about 20 years, according to the administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because details of the plan had not been made public.

And keep in mind this background, also from The Times, showing that this move on leasing isn’t just about climate change:

Officials at the Interior Department, which oversees the leasing of public lands to energy companies for fossil fuel extraction, have been reviewing for the past year possible updates to the leasing and royalty programs for mining and drilling on government lands.

In 2014, the federal government received about $1.2 billion in leases, royalties and other fees for coal mining on public lands, with a leasing rate of $3 per acre, plus royalties paid on the market value of the coal at the time of extraction.

But a 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office questioned whether the lease and royalty rates accurately reflected the market value of the coal.