BLM hears from coal country as it considers program changes
June 23, 2016
Federal officials saw some of the faces behind the debate over the future of the U.S. coal industry Thursday in Grand Junction, as everyone from miners to people concerned about the local impacts of climate change turned out for a regional Bureau of Land Management meeting.
The agency is considering reforms to the federal coal program, including a possible increase in royalty rates, and Thursday's meeting at the Avalon Theatre was one of six it is holding around the country to gather input as it undertakes that effort.
"We want to make sure that the royalty rates are appropriate, and if they need to be adjusted, that we're looking at that," said Ruth Welch, state director of the BLM in Colorado.
At least 160 people signed up to speak at Thursday's day-long meeting. Many showed up in yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Coal" across the front and declaring the resource to be "reliable, affordable, proven, abundant."
Among those who made the trip to Grand Junction was Gregg Angelovich of Crawford, who works at Arch Coal's West Elk Mine in the North Fork Valley. It recently laid off 80 miners. He said in an interview that he's worried about the impacts of coal regulations on mines, communities and families, and that they could affect the affordability of electricity.
"I think coal is a staple of our power generation," he said.
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Mesa County Commissioner John Justman voiced a similar concern, saying that already about 20 percent of county residents receive wintertime energy assistance.
"If this (industry) gets shut down, are we going to be to 50 or 70 percent on energy assistance, and where is that money going to come from?" Justman asked.
Kathy Welt, another employee at West Elk Mine, said that while the review is a federal one, "the impacts are absolutely in our community right now."
Brian Meinhart, a representative for U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, said the congressman is worried that the new federal review could deal another blow to the North Fork Valley.
Meinhart pointed to about 900 overall North Fork coal mining layoffs that have occurred in recent years, out of some 1,200 mining jobs in the valley.
"These numbers aren't just statistics on a page. They're real people with families to support," he said.
Said John Swartout, an aide to Gov. John Hickenlooper, "These families are critical to the communities that they live in. These jobs provide for these families. These jobs are critical."
Swartout and a representative for U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet said the federal review is appropriate but needs to be done expeditiously. A moratorium on new federal coal leases — but not mining under existing leases — is in place during the review, which is expected to last three years.
While BLM officials heard a lot about coal jobs Thursday, others expressed concern about the impacts of coal burning.
"Coal production is a direct contributor to climate change," said Stu Fraser, former mayor of Telluride.
He said that's contributing locally to decreased snowpack, more trees dying from insect infestation, and longer, harsher wildfire seasons, and the federal coal program needs to account for its climate change impacts.
"It is time to modernize Western economies and increase their resiliency to climate change," Fraser said.
Bill Dvorak, a rafting and fishing outfitter, said his business has faced climate extremes over the last 16 years, from drought, to high water, to earlier spring runoff.
"There's no such thing as a normal year anymore," he said.
He and Fraser were among those who called for a coal royalty rate that provides a fair return to taxpayers.
Jill Lancelot, with the group Taxpayers for Common Sense, said reform of the coal program can't wait with the nation facing a $19 trillion debt. She said the program currently lacks transparency or fiscal responsibility.
"The program is badly in need of reform and has been riddled with problems for years," she said.
Jeremy Nichols, with the conservation group WildEarth Guardians, repeated his call for keeping coal in the ground, but also helping miners and mining communities transition away from coal communities.
"We have an opportunity to take the bull by the horns, so to speak, and steer things in a better direction," rather than "just let disaster befall communities," he said.
Speakers on Thursday addressed a number of issues for the BLM to consider. Among them are whether the current leasing moratorium is needed, the adequacy of current mined-land reclamation, and the wisdom of rules allowing mine companies to self-bond to ensure that reclamation occurs, a practice that has come under scrutiny as many companies have been going bankrupt.
Critics of an increased royalty rate worry about its impacts on coal mining when companies already are cutting back operations and shutting some mines at a time of low coal demand and increased regulation. Jim Miller, general manager of the West Elk Mine, told the BLM Thursday that the government needs to make coal mining on federal lands more competitive, rather than less. He said that, rather than bringing in more revenues, raising royalty rates could result in no return for taxpayers because mining would no longer occur.
This week, a report by White House economists concluded raising royalty rates would increase government revenues even while modestly reducing federal coal production.
Delta County Commissioner Mark Roeber told the BLM Thursday, "When you look at the return to the taxpayer you also have to look at what the economies of these communities depend on."
Roeber credited the BLM for holding its meeting in coal country rather than Denver, so it could hear from people who have been directly affected by the coal program review. He said mine layoffs have been "a total hit to our whole community," with nurses leaving hospital jobs because their husbands lost their mining jobs, school enrollment dropping and school closures a possibility, and people who once volunteered as coaches and 4-H leaders leaving the area.
Angelovich told BLM officials raising royalty rates would add to the local economic impacts the North Fork Valley is experiencing. He encouraged the BLM to visit the valley, "see these real people, look at their faces and look at their homes that are sitting there empty."
To some laughter from the audience, he added, "Oftentimes I think if we leave the coal in the ground, what would a layoff in the BLM have to look like," referring to agency jobs related to its coal program.
Despite his concerns about the BLM's plans, Angelovich said when interviewed that he came to Thursday's meeting with an open mind and an interest in hearing other views that can give him a more educated opinion.
"I think in any event if you only come to speak and not listen, you're not a very well-rounded individual," he said.
Dennis Webb is a reporter for the Daily Sentinel in Grand Junction. He can be reached at Dennis.Webb@gjsentinel.com.Dennis Webb is a reporter for the Daily Sentinel in Grand Junction. He can be reached at Dennis.Webb@gjsentinel.com.Dennis Webb is a reporter for the Daily Sentinel in Grand Junction. He can be reached at Dennis.Webb@gjsentinel.com.