By FRANCES LAMBERTS
“In dealing with a totally new set of conditions, there must at the outset be hesitation and review,” President T. Roosevelt said in August 1907. “Not only the legislatures but the courts and the people need gradually be educated so that they may see what the real wrongs are and what the real remedies.”
In January, Interior Department Secretary Jewell announced a halt in the lease program for new coal extraction from the federal lands. Not affected by the temporary ban are ongoing operations or already-approved mining projects.
Underpayment of royalties from this resource has been a long-cited defect of the coal-leasing program. It was behind the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment’s urging, in 1984, that the Interior Department “temper its pace of coal leasing (and) improve its procedures for receiving fair market value.”
The LA Times reported in January on the continuing low-royalties problem. Quoting figures from the Inspector General and independent financial-analysis research concluded that, through “rock-bottom prices (of as little as) $1 a ton for taxpayer-owned coal” the program was losing tens of millions of dollars in revenue annually, with total cost over the last thirty years at nearly $29 billion.
When Roosevelt promoted legislation in the Congress “for title to and development of underlying mineral fuels in regions where they occur … under a leasing system,” he desired this to be administered for fair value to both industry and the public.
Corporations should have “an ample material reward” under it, but its conditions should be such as to “inure to the benefit of the public as a whole.”
Should new conditions arise, he insisted, the people’s right to reassess and determine what should be done with a natural-resources lease system prevails. The privilege of use of these resources through grant by the Federal
Government, he said, exists “only because the people as a whole allow the grantee” the particular use. It is not “an indeterminate and indefinite reward” but revokable if changed conditions make that a necessity.
Coal is the most carbon intensive of the fossil fuels. With a dangerous climate destabilization threat upon us, revenue losses from the lease program, although important, are no longer the worst of its defects.
It generates 40 percent of all the coal produced in the United States. By far most fossil fuel reserves, especially coal, must now remain in the ground if the safe limit in global temperature rise is not to be greatly exceeded.
The affected industry, suffering under low demand through coal-plant closures, including by the TVA, should receive assistance to weather the energy transition. Yet ending future coal leases from the federal lands would be the right decision for the Bureau of Land Management’s Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement review of this program.
BLM is seeking citizens comments, through July 28, 2016 at [email protected]
As Teddy said: “When the conditions change, as in all probability they will change, our children, the Nation of the future, shall have the right to determine (if and how the public-lands lease) privilege shall be enjoyed.”