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Coal debate heats up at hearing

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Photo by Hank Lohmeyer Coal miners, many from Delta County, made their presence and their thoughts known both outside and inside Grand Junction's Avalon Theater where the BLM held hearings last week to gather testimony on possible changes to its federal

A major battle in the war on coal was fought at Grand Junction on June 23 as proponents of the industry went head-to-head with its opponents in hearings hosted by the U.S. Department of Interior and BLM.

Nationally, BLM is evaluating whether to raise the current 12.5 percent federal royalty rate on coal mined by above-ground producers, and 8 percent royalty on underground producers using public lands. The coal industry sees the move as part of a federal initiative to cripple and ultimately disable the industry in favor of renewable energy development. Others, led principally by various environmental groups and coalitions, accuse the coal industry of creating global warming and causing environmental catastrophe; they want the industry penalized financially and ultimately shut down.

The BLM session in Grand Junction last week was the fifth of six being held around the country to get input for a final decision on royalty rates, a decision at least three years away. In the meantime, the Obama administration has placed a three-year moratorium on new coal lease sales and on the issuance of new coal mining leases on public lands, a move industry representatives said is unnecessary.

There were 160 speaker requests for three-minute time slots during the Grand Junction meeting. At three minutes each, it was enough for a full eight-hour-long day; the comments went almost continuously from 10:30 a.m. to almost 5 p.m., and only two-thirds of the speakers had time to be heard. BLM will take written comments at least until July 28.

The comments never got seriously into the actual issue of raising the federal royalty rate. Speakers quickly took up sides on the issue of the coal industry versus its environmental opponents.

The session was civil, but the gloves came off early. Opponents, including major environmental groups, went on the attack while the coal industry, including local miners and elected officials, defended coal mining.

Supporting the industry were coal miners themselves who turned out in big numbers for the session; also coal company management, mining related businesses, coal mining industry groups, and local government officials. They spoke up for their jobs, their families, their communities, and for their industry addressing a panel that included the current BLM state director and two high level BLM bureaucrats from Washington, D.C.

Among speakers supporting the industry throughout the day were Delta County Commissioner Mark Roeber and County Administrator Robbie LeValley. Also defending the industry were commissioners from Montrose, Mesa, Moffat and Routt counties. Representative Scott Tipton sent supporting comments. State Rep. Yeulin Willett also spoke up for the importance of the coal industry locally. Representatives from other groups including Friends of Coal, Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado and West Elk Mine explained the importance of the industry locally and nationally. Directors of the Colorado Mining Association and the Utah Mining Association also addressed the session.

Many of their opponents, speaking in favor of the BLM's three-year royalty rate study and current leasing moratorium identified themselves with well-known environmental groups. They included national anti-coal organizations

Greenpeace, Wild Earth Guardians, National Wildlife Federation, Ecological Society of America, Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club. Others included taxpayer rights advocates, Colorado Wildlife Federation, Western Slope Conservation Center, Citizens for Clean Air, Public Citizen, Western Colorado Congress, Climate Reality Project, and Great Old Broads for Wilderness

Opponents of the coal industry took quick aim tagging it with responsibility for global warming and for causing various environmental catastrophes. The industry took blame for causing low snow pack, early runoff, drought and forest fires. Global warming, climate chaos and environmental crisis were cited by speakers as examples of "the social costs of carbon." Speaker after speaker called on the BLM officials to "fix

the broken federal coal leasing program."

A speaker from Telluride said his community's tourism economy, which draws 500,000 visitors per year and which logs 2.5 million rides on its "green gondola," is suffering through economy crushing environmental crisis caused in part by burning coal to make electricity. A speaker from Crested Butte noted how his community had progressed from a coal economy in the steam locomotive days to an upscale tourist community now "where most of the people in this room couldn't afford to live."

Coal supporters countered with statistics showing how coal supports people, communities and governments. Federal coal is already taxed at a total direct rate of almost 40 percent, speakers said. On top of that are payroll taxes and local property taxes. Mines are the largest taxpayers in some counties. Undeterred, coal's opponents pushed for a raise in the federal royalty rate on mined coal and said that coal should be left in the ground.

Other individuals from multi-generational West Slope families and from the outdoor recreation industry addressed the panel of top BLM officials. Most of them dodged the thorny issues of the royalty rate and of industry vs. environmentalists. They chose instead simply to describe what they do and what their lives are like as they pursue Colorado's traditional green economy activities of agriculture, outdoor recreatio, and marketing the state's scenery and blue skies.

Throughout the day, individuals began and ended their comments with thanks and appreciation for the privilege of being allowed to speak before the panel of federal appointees.

The Department of Interior explains its coal leasing program initiative and possible revamp of the federal coal royalty rate as "modernizing the federal coal program." The term "modernization" is being used for other BLM initiatives to overhaul regulations on public lands and their users. An example of that is the BLM's Planning Rule 2.0 which is opposed by the Delta County Commissioners.

The BLM's three-year-long review of coal leasing is to result in a draft "programmatic environmental impact statement," or PEIS. The BLM is taking written comments until a tentative cutoff date of July 28 -- a date which officials said could be extended.

Photo by Hank Lohmeyer Brad Burritt of Hotchkiss provided letters and petitions calling for continuation of BLM’s coal leasing program study.
Photo by Hank Lohmeyer Kathy Welt of the West Elk Mine had 500 petitions from local mining supporters.
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