Bipartisan initiatives are rare events these days, but the coal industry’s scheme to export millions of tons of publicly owned coal overseas is proving scandalous enough to bring Democrats and Republicans together.
On January 4th, responding to a Reuters investigation, Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) co-authored a letter to Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar calling for a full investigation into whether companies like Arch and Cloud Peak are undervaluing coal destined for foreign markets and cheating US taxpayers out of royalty payments.
The coal in question is from the Powder River Basin, an area stretching across Wyoming and Montana that’s home to one of the largest coal reserves in the world. This coal belongs to American taxpayers, for use in the best interests of the nation –companies are supposed to pay the United States to be able to mine that coal. Of course, what’s truly in America’s best interests is to keep coal underground so it doesn’t fuel droughts and monster hurricanes due to runaway global warming. But if the government is going to give our coal to corporations, it should at least make sure those companies aren’t ripping us off.
Unfortunately, the Federal government, under the Department of Interior and Bureau of Land Management, has been leasing this coal for next to nothing – literally cheaper than dirt – to companies that now hope to ship it overseas to Asia.
According to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, this coal leasing scandal has amounted to a $30 billion and counting subsidy. Now, it appears that coal companies may also be selling this coal to in-house domestic affiliates before shipping it overseas to avoid paying full royalties on the much higher price coal can fetch on international markets. If the allegations prove true, it’s a real slap in the face to American taxpayers from an industry that likes to boast about its commitment to American prosperity.
“Neighbors to Wyoming coal mines, like my family, have sacrificed a lot for Wyoming to be the nation’s leader in coal production.” said L.J. Turner, cattle and sheep rancher, from Wright, Wyo., and member of the Powder River Basin Resource Council. “The least we deserve is to know that we’re not getting short-changed by the coal companies.”
Coal companies like Arch, Peabody and Ambre are looking at a shrinking market to burn coal in the United States. The only way they can keep up their big profits is to sell the coal overseas, so it’s no surprise that they’ll eat up government handouts and cut corners to do it. And they want to keep the whole thing as quiet as possible.
Unfortunately, as more people become aware of what’s going on, the industry’s odds continue to shrink. In the past few months, nearly 10,000 people have attended public hearings in Washington and Oregon to voice their opposition to coal exports. If that doesn’t trouble coal company executives, Senator Murkowski and Wyden’s call for an investigation should. Sen. Murkowski isn’t exactly a traditional critic of the coal industry – she’s been a steadfast ally for fossil fuel companies in the past, but apparently this latest scandal is too much for her to bear.
When even their friends are turning on them, maybe it’s time for the coal industry to start getting nervous about its plans to rip off Americans.