Dethroning Old King Coal

For more than 30 years, I have been unearthing problems with the way the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sells coal that belongs to the American people. Rather than serving the interests of the American taxpayer and the climate, the federal program has done what's best for coal companies. Roughly 40 percent of the coal that is mined in America every year comes from public lands, the vast majority coming from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana. However, because of the problems with the program that I revealed American taxpayers cannot be assured that they are getting a fair return on this tremendously valuable natural resource that belongs to them.

It is really a tale of two reviews by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) - one in 1983 and one in 2014 and both at my request. Unfortunately, the storylines from both of these reports were strikingly similar. Because of a lack of competition and other problems, the federal government has been selling this federally-owned coal at rock bottom prices.

My first GAO review found that the Reagan Administration had sold coal in the Powder River Basin for roughly $100 million less than it was worth. That scandal ultimately led to the resignation of President Reagan's first Interior Secretary, James Watt.

However, by 2014, we were back to business as usual at the Interior Department when it came to leasing our nation's coal. In fact, my 2014 GAO review was the first review of the coal program in 20 years. And the GAO found that many of the problems they discovered in the coal program had persisted since the 1980s. There was still a woeful lack of competition for these coal leases and numerous other problems that undermined the effectiveness of the program.

One major problem: As a result of selling this coal at bargain basement prices, we have been, in effect, subsidizing the coal industry to mine coal that belongs to the American people so that it can be burned here and around the world and worsen climate change. This is just plain wrong.

The United States has to lead by example in fighting climate change, and that should start with the way that we manage the coal and other fossil fuel resources on public lands that belong to the American people.

Fortunately, the Obama Administration announced today that it will take action to comprehensively reform our nation's coal program. The urgency of climate change has helped overcome the inertia of the BLM to do what is right for the American people. The Administration will also stop issuing new coal leases until those reforms are put in place, a recommendation I have been making for years.

The reforms announced today closely track with legislation I have introduced. They include overhauling when, where and how to lease coal, accounting for the impacts of coal leasing on the climate and reforming the way we calculate the value of publicly-owned coal to ensure that taxpayers aren't getting shortchanged. But there are a number of measures that the Interior Department should implement this year before President Obama leaves office.

The Interior Department should immediately increase the royalty rate paid to the American people for coal production on public lands. It should issue regulations to ensure that we take into account the impacts on our climate and the possibility of exports when leasing this coal. And it should vastly increase the transparency of coal leasing so that the American people can see and understand what is being done.

I look forward to continuing to work with President Obama and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell to put these reforms in place and overhaul this broken system. The Interior Department's announcement today will ensure that we can protect taxpayers who own this valuable resource by closing the mine-size loopholes in our coal leasing process. And it will ensure that we are not worsening climate change by subsidizing coal companies to mine this coal from public lands by selling it below market value.