By Nellis Kennedy-Howard, Beyond Coal senior campaign representative, New Mexico
A tremendous day in Farmington, New Mexico – really quite historic.
On Aug. 20, more than 100 people gathered at a session hosted by the Bureau of Land Management to testify in support of reforming the outdated federal coal-leasing program, which shortchanges taxpayers by undervaluing our public coal and subsidizing polluting coal operations.
The listening session, held in Farmington, N.M., was certainly an unprecedented event where the multitudes far outnumbered any small sign of opposition. This is truly outstanding given that Farmington is home to two major coal plants, two coal mines and over a thousand coal workers. More than half of those attending were people of color, including Native American, Hispanic and Latino activists.
For decades coal mining companies have been paying royalty rates that are far too low, shortchanging taxpayers out of $30 billion in lost revenues, according to independent analysis. Under the current federal coal program, many coal companies aren’t required to set aside enough money or insurance to clean up public lands after they are done mining — potentially leaving communities and taxpayers on the hook for billions of dollars and dangerous situations later on.
It couldn’t be more clear that the overwhelming majority in attendance were in favor of reforming the BLM’s coal-leasing program in ways to keep coal in the ground and for coal companies to pay their fair share.
More than 60 people spoke in favor of reform and only 3 speakers spoke against.
There was a tremendous variety of speakers, including tribal activists, Latino mothers, city leaders from Telluride and Taos, faith leaders, clean-energy advocates and other concerned taxpayers.
“Navajo people have suffered great abuse as energy companies have pushed their way onto the Navajo reservation with toxic waste dumps, uranium mining, oil wells and two coal-power plants that generate some of the worst air pollution in the United States,” Sarah Jane White, a concerned citizen of the Navajo Nation, told the BLM panel. “Navajo people bear the brunt of this environmental devastation and the health problems like asthma and heart disease that come with it, but we never see our fair share of the profits these polluters make off our lands and people.”
“Coal mining and coal-fired power plants have had devastating impacts on the Navajo Nation for over 50 years,” Coleen Cooley, energy outreach coordinator of Dinè CARE, told the BLM panel. “Despite big promises from polluters about the benefits of coal mining and coal energy, many on the Navajo Nation are still at poverty-level living conditions, without running water and electricity in their homes. We have suffered the burden of climate injustices for far too long; it’s time to transition to cleaner energy now!”
“I’m here to remind you of your obligation to our children,” said Deke Romero of Picuris Pueblo. “Everywhere you guys go you leave a mess. You’ve failed the American people, sold our resources, basically given them away to these companies. … You have all the data that shows what you’re doing is wrong, but you continue these policies. When are you going to wake up? We can’t sustain this. You’re taking our children’s future away with your policies.”
Ed Becenti, Diné, of Window Rock, said: “Our bodies have been contaminated by the dirty air, by the poisonous rains. I can feel it, the animals can feel it. When the snow melts and the livestock drink that water, they get sick. Coal is a major culprit of this problem. The federal government has failed to protect us. The fed government is more interested in keeping the coal companies going than in protecting our water sources and protecting us.”
Special guest Navajo Nation Shiprock Chapter President Chili Yazzie spoke in favor of BLM doing more to protect Navajo communities: “Today the equilibrium of Earth is out of balance because of unrelenting digging and drilling. We are killing the earth. The life of the earth is ebbing. If this hearing is not a sham, if you truly have influence on this process, hear us as we stand here in defense of our Earth Mother that sustains us all.”
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye also attended the session to hear from concerned Navajo citizens.
There was a short convening along the banks of the Animas River prior to the listening session for Native peoples to gather in prayer about the messages to be shared with the BLM, to congregate with songs on the hand drum and to offer prayers for the Animas River disaster.
This event was made possible by the many concerned citizens who attended the event and ultimately the many organizations who contributed to an outstanding listening session, including: Dine’ CARE; San Juan Citizens Alliance; Western Environmental Law Center; Wild Earth Guardians; Juntos, a program of Conservation Voters New Mexico Education Fund; Environment New Mexico; New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light; National Wildlife Federation; Western Organization of Resource Councils; Western Coalfield Alliance; 350.org; New Energy Economy; Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment; Dooda’ Desert Rock; 4 Corners Idle NO More; Medicine2Strong; Sierra Club and more.
Read more about the session in the Farmington Daily Times.
If you’d like to send a comment to the BLM, please click here.
Background on Department of Interior’s coal-leasing program:
- — The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis found that “Taxpayers missed out on an estimated $28.9 billion in revenues over 30 years due to the failure of the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to get fair market value for U.S.-owned coal.”
- — A Headwaters Economics analysis this year concluded that because of loopholes and deductions, the government is receiving an effective royalty rate of 4.9 percent, far lower than the legally required 8 percent for underground coal and 12.5 percent for surface-mined coal.
- — BLM leases most federal coal for less than $1 per ton. Coal companies turn around and sell the coal at anywhere between $10-$40/ton (recent domestic prices), $60/ton (recent international price) and $120/ton (international price three years ago). Bargain-basement lease prices prevent a fair return for the American public based on the true value of coal to buyers. Worse, we can’t check the math, because BLM keeps their valuation formula secret.
- — Headwaters estimated that loopholes and outdated policies cost taxpayers roughly $850 million between 2008 and 2012. Coal royalties are split between the federal and state governments, so those lost millions are shortchanging our schools and roads here in New Mexico.
- — In May, Headwaters Economics released another report finding that “changes in federal royalty policy could have substantial revenue benefit for federal and state governments with limited impact on coal production or prices on federal land.”
- — In 2012, Reuters found that coal companies were selling coal through subsidiaries, which helped them avoid paying royalties on final sales. Reuters estimated that in 2011 alone, this single loophole allowed companies to pocket an extra additional $40 million on PRB coal exports.
- — Since 1990, more than 90% of the coal-lease auctions held by the BLM have had only one bidder, despite a clear mandate under the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 that federal coal leases be offered “competitively.” This unfair practice has contributed to a chronic undervaluing of our public coal.