SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is among the battleground locations picked by the U.S. Department of the Interior to garner public input on possible reforms to the federal coal program that could include upping royalty payments assessed to companies and more stringent environmental regulations.
The federal agency Tuesday announced a series of public meetings in May and June, with the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City slated to host a daylong hearing May 19 to solicit input on potential reforms.
Coal companies are already straining under the weight of economic challenges brought on by a glut of cheap natural gas and a tourniquet of more environmental regulations the industry says is choking it into financial ruin.
Peabody Energy, the nation's largest coal company, declared bankruptcy this month, following a string of other companies seeking to restructure debt.
In Utah, one coal-fired power plant has already closed, companies have closed or idled mines, and the largest operating coal company in the state, Kentucky-based Bowie Resources, is seeking to shore up its future via access to foreign markets with an Oakland, California, export terminal.
But the Obama administration says the federal coal program is long overdue for reforms, pointing to a report by the General Accountability Office that raised concerns over the bidding process, royalty rates and if the Bureau of Land Management — and hence the taxpayer — is getting enough compensation.
Revenues from federal coal leases are about $1 billion annually.
As part of the proposed overhaul, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced in January that no new federal leases for coal would be issued for three years. The decision could potentially take 75 million tons of recoverable Utah coal off the table, but critics of coal say the leasing program is rife with problems.
There are also legal wranglings over the administration's proposed Clean Power Plan — which would force reductions in emissions from coal-fired power plants — and consideration of more stringent safeguards to prevent contamination of nearby streams.
In March, the Bureau of Land Management announced its intent to embark on a comprehensive environmental analysis and overall review of the coal leasing program, with these meetings as one step to gather public input.
National director Neil Kornze said the agency particularly wants to probe issues such as whether Americans are receiving a "fair return" for federal coal; how market conditions affect coal; how federal coal affects the environment; and how all of that impacts coal-dependent communities. The feedback obtained during the meetings will help determine the size and scope of the review.
Meetings will run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at these locations:
• Tuesday, May 17 — Casper Events Center, 1 Events Center Drive, Casper, Wyoming
• Thursday, May 19 — Salt Palace Convention Center, 100 W. Temple, Salt Lake City
• Thursday, May 26 — Tennessee Theatre, 604 S. Gay Street, Knoxville, Tennessee
• Thursday, June 16 — Pittsburgh Convention Center, 1000 Fort Duquesne Blvd., Pittsburgh
• Thursday, June 23 — Two Rivers Convention Center, 159 N. Main, Grand Junction, Colorado
The agency said it will also hold a hearing in Seattle in June, but the date has yet to be determined.
Hearings in Casper, Seattle and Pittsburgh will be live-streamed at blm.gov/live, and all six meetings will have a listen-only audio link via telephone. Those who attend the meeting and wish to speak in person will be asked to sign in and will be accommodated on a first-come, first-served basis.
Written comments will be accepted until July 23 via email at BLM_WO_Coal_Program_PEIS_Comments@blm.gov or via mail at Coal Programmatic EIS Scoping Bureau of Land Management, 20 M St. SE, Room 2134 LM, Washington, D.C., 20003.
The department will release an interim report by the end of the year that will include a summary of substantive comments received during the scoping period. The comprehensive review is expected to take three years to complete.
The BLM also has a website that includes more information on the review process.