House subcommittee looks toward the future of coal

Not unsurprisingly, Democrats and Republicans had opposing views at a House subcommittee meeting Thursday on the future of coal in the United States. (Noah Broder/Medill)

By Noah Broder

WASHINGTON––Democrats and Republicans had opposing views on the value of coal to the U.S. economy Thursday, with Democrats calling for more environmental controls and Republicans stressing how essential coal is to the energy infrastructure.

Democrats at the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources hearing worried that companies that mine on federal land are not paying their fair share, and that the environmental and social consequences of coal are not being properly considered.

Republicans spoke about the success of the program in job creation and how indispensable coal is to the energy infrastructure of America.

The Federal Coal program is a Bureau of Land Management program that allows private companies to mine coal on federal land. The companies bid for the rights to use the land and pay the government a fee for the land and the coal extracted and a royalty on the coal that is sold. The program is predominantly found in western states like Wyoming and was integral in the powering of America throughout the 20th century.

Now, critics say the program needs to be modernized and reformed to reflect the true cost of relying on this part of the fossil fuel industry.

Subcommittee chair Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., said the program “ignores the effects of coal on our climate and the future of Americans who are losing their livelihoods as coal disappears. These are two things that I’m most focused on.”

But Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar, the top Republican on the committee, stressed the importance of coal to the U.S. economy. “Coal mining is essential to American energy security, providing an affordable, reliable source of baseload power to families across the country,” Gosar said. “Coal mining also employs over 53,000 people, including regions of the country experiencing economic hardships, like Appalachia.”

The differences in focus laid out in Gosar and Lowenthal’s opening statements were present throughout the hearing. For the few Democrats who were present during the hearing, like Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., questions environmental and social problems related to mining and the industry. Most of those questions were directed at Jim Stock, an economics professor at Harvard and a member of former President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors.

“In recent research, I and co-authors estimate that 92% of the decline in coal from 2008 to 2016 is due to the decline in natural gas prices,” Stock said. He added that mine closings and consolidation “demonstrate that market forces are driving the decline of coal, despite the many pro-coal actions taken by (President Donald Trump’s) administration.”

For Republicans, the focus was on questioning Hal Quinn, president and CEO of the National Mining Association. Quinn echoed Gosar and other Republican’s views that coal is a job creator and a significant part of the country’s energy future. He called the federal coal program a “national and economic success story” and disagreed with the 2016 Obama-era decision to place a moratorium on the program.

While the differences across the aisle were clear, Lowenthal articulated the shared goal of wanting to learn more and properly address the coal program moving forward. “We could do this in the same haphazard way that we’ve managed the Federal Coal Program over the past few decades,” he said. “Or we can consider phasing out the Federal Coal Program in a reasonable, thoughtful way that protects workers, guarantees mine cleanup, and addresses climate change.”

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