Coal leasing reform benefits wildlife and ranchers

Right now the United States Department of Interior is conducting a nationwide programmatic review of the coal leasing program. There’s been a lot of conversation about ensuring that taxpayers receive fair market value from leasing royalties and reducing the climate impacts from coal emissions, but we believe that much greater attention must be paid to the need to restore the wildlife habitat and agriculture lands that have been decimated by mining—as well as preventing taxpayers from having to foot the massive bill to clean up such lands.

Coal strip-mine reclamation is lagging across wide swaths of the West. Scarcely ten percent of promised reclamation has been completed on federal lands leased for coal production—and, as the coal companies face increasingly difficult financial conditions, their ability to pay for cleanup measures is in doubt.


Taxpayers could be left holding the bag for more than $3 billion in mine cleanup costs, without which important wildlife species, like mule deer, pronghorn, and sage grouse, will continue to decline due to degraded and fragmented habitat.

How could this happen? Under the 40-year old Federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, many coal companies were originally permitted to “self-bond” – that is, set aside company funds for future cleanups. This enabled them to avoid paying for independent third-party insurance to fund reclamation work.

Meanwhile, taxpayers could become liable for the massive costs remaining to reclaim and repair the landscape. According to a joint report from the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) Undermined Promise II, the scale of lands that need reclamation is staggering. The year-old report found that in Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota, only 46 square miles out of 450 square miles of mined lands had been reclaimed as of mid-2015.  It appears increasingly likely that some companies may not be able to fulfill their reclamation commitments.

In 2015, the National Wildlife Federation published Losing Ground, which found that energy development across the American west is inflicting widespread impacts on wildlife, landscapes, and hunting traditions. For example, the only place in Wyoming with a healthy population of mule deer is located in the region of the Black Hills—an area with virtually no energy development.

Lack of adequate mine reclamation also affects sportsmen – and the tourism upon which many Western states rely. Hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation are all a major part of Western states’ economies, and if the coal industry cannot fulfill its cleanup responsibilities, it will undermine each state’s tourism economic engine. In Montana and Wyoming, hunting and outdoor recreation generates more than $7.2 billion annually and supports nearly 70,000 jobs.

For agricultural producers, shallow federal coal seams are also the source of vital groundwater essential to ranching in the semi-arid region. Mined out areas and unreclaimed areas are discharging degraded water that is unfit for livestock or wildlife, further threatening the long-term economic vitality of the region.

Inadequate reclamation and the potential to burden taxpayers with cleanup costs are just part of the problems associated with outdated federal coal-leasing rules. Taxpayers also lose when federal coal managers fail to get fair market value or allow industry to exploit loopholes. According to a 2012 report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), taxpayers have lost nearly $30 billion in revenue in the preceding 30 years.  This leaves federal and state land managers with insufficient resources to restore damaged areas.

The Interior Department’s Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement on coal management provides a perfect opportunity to fix the antiquated coal leasing system for the benefit of wildlife, sportsmen, farmers, and all taxpayers.  Only through substantial reform and an expansion in funding to restore degraded wildlife habitat and agriculture lands can Americans have confidence their country’s public trust resources are being managed responsibly.

Jim Lyon is the Vice President of Conservation Policy at the National Wildlife Federation. Steve Charter is the former chair of the Northern Plains Resource Council, a member of the Western Organization of Resource Councils and is a rancher in Shepherd, Montana.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.