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U.S. House debates coal’s long-term future on federal lands

The Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming remains one of the most productive coal-producing regions in the nation.
Kimon Berlin
Flickr Creative Commons
The Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming remains one of the most productive coal-producing regions in the nation.

News brief: 

The U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources held a hearing in mid-June about coal leasing on federal lands. The fiery debate in Washington comes as the Biden Administration continues to contemplate whether or not to regularly hold lease sales.

Federal leasing for thermal coal – which is used to generate electricity – has been in legal limbo since the Obama Administration put it on pause in 2016. The moratorium was reversed during the Trump Administration but reinstated in 2021. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is currently considering whether or not to extend that pause.

On the ground in coal-producing states, that legal limbo has been frustrating at times for the energy industry. Randall Luthi, Chief Energy Advisor for the Governor of Wyoming, did not hold back his feelings about federal officials during testimony.

“I would give it the following grades: ‘D’ for disappointing, ‘E’ for a federal program that is basically extinct, ‘F’ for failure to capitalize on the economic and environmental benefit of coal. And I would even go for an ‘I’ for inaction on important permits,” he said.

On the other side, environmental groups say coal leasing – and subsequent mining and production – contributes to greenhouse gas pollution and global warming. They argue that more focus should be placed on transitioning toward more renewable energy resources.

Sarah Kendall, Interim Executive Director of the Western Organization of Resource Councils, testified that most of the recent economic impacts against coal have also been dictated by private industry, rather than public policy.

“The real leasing pause is being driven by the market and competition from less expensive energy sources,” she said. “We need to focus on creating new sustainable and diverse local economies and preserving the benefits and respect the coal miners and their families have earned over generations of hard work powering our country.”

The federal government controls about a third of U.S coal reserves, mostly in the West. Wyoming remains the largest producer of coal in the country.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is a contributing journalist and former reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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