‘War on coal’ is over, Trump team trumpets, as it approves two Utah mining projects

Proclaiming an end to the “war on coal,” federal land managers delivered a Valentine’s Day gift to Utah’s coal country, announcing the award of a long-awaited lease to Alton Coal Development Co., which needs a 3,581-acre tract to keep operations going at its strip mine west of Bryce Canyon National Park.

“American coal jobs matter,” acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in a news release. “Coal production on federal lands provides nearly 40 percent of our nation’s coal. By approving these projects today, we will ensure that these mines are operational for years to come, providing well-paying jobs and affordable energy to the people of Utah.”

The release, which highlighted decisions that were actually made months ago, was unusual for its political messaging that leveraged rather routine lease approvals into a celebration of the U.S. coal industry. Coal mining has a storied history in Utah, but this industry produces a fossil fuel that releases a disproportionate load of greenhouse gases and toxic pollution and has put hundreds of miners into early graves.

In the same release, Interior also announced an expansion to Sufco Mine’s leases in central Utah by 6.2 million tons. While that is hardly enough to keep the state’s most productive mine going for more than a year, Assistant Interior Secretary Joe Balash found much to cheer in President Donald Trump’s reverence for coal.

“In coal towns across this country, the American dream is alive and well," the releases quotes him saying.

While Trump’s Interior Department may be doing its best to support the beleaguered coal industry, critics fear it is intensifying a “war on public lands."

Alton Coal Tract poses direct threats to the landscapes, air and pristine night skies at nearby Bryce Canyon National Park, a revenue-generating engine for the region, supporting thousands of jobs and welcoming 2.6 million visitors each year,” said Cory MacNulty, associate Southwest regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association. Thursday’s “announcement by the Interior Department foreshadows the attacks on our parks and public lands to come under proposed Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.”

The decision to award the Alton lease, containing 40 million tons of coal, was actually made months ago, and Alton entered the winning and only bid at a “competitive sale” in November. The $12.3 million offer, which amounted to 40 cents per recoverable ton of coal, had to pass muster with Interior appraisers before it could be accepted.

The lease is vital to Alton’s continued operations at its Coal Hollow Mine near Alton in Kane County. The company is running out of private coal to mine. It will pay an enhanced 12 percent royalty on this coal because it was mined from the surface. Underground mines such as Sufco pay an 8 percent royalty, although the Interior Department awards reductions when operators run into unforeseen geological complications.

The lease enables Alton to increase production by a factor of eight for 15 years. Based on Alton’s expected 2 million tons of annual production, the lease could create more than 100 new jobs at the mine and indirectly increase employment by 240 to 480 jobs, including fuel providers, and positions in maintenance, grocery stores and retail stores, according to the Interior release.

The release quotes all five Republican members of Utah’s congressional delegation, heaping praise on Bernhardt’s leadership. The former oil industry lobbyist is awaiting Senate confirmation to replace Ryan Zinke, who was forced out of Interior in the face of numerous ethics investigation.

“Alton Coal is an economic engine that provides good-paying jobs that benefit the entire region,” said Rep. Chris Stewart, whose district covers part of Utah coal country. “This lease is a big win for my constituents. It will allow for additional growth and create more jobs that can support families year-round.”

Sen. Mike Lee alleged that Interior under Sally Jewell’s leadership had tried to kill Utah coal production, while the Trump administration is committed to bringing it back.

“That’s why coal production in Utah increased in 2017 for the first time in three years,” he said. “These two new coal projects are a huge win for Utah jobs, Utah consumers and the Utah economy.”

During her four-year tenure as President Barack Obama’s Interior chief, Jewell made no overt moves to throttle Utah’s coal output, but she did impose a moratorium on new leases pending a review of the federal coal program. Zinke lifted that moratorium shortly after assuming Interior’s leadership in 2017.

Declines and increases in the state’s coal production in recent years were more a reflection of market forces and California’s renewable energy requirements than anything the Obama administration did, according to many observers. The recent rebound in Utah production, for example, stems from the success the state’s largest producer, Wolverine Fuels, has seen shipping coal to Asia through Bay Area ports.

In the other move announced Thursday, Interior approved a request by Wolverine subsidiary Canyon Fuel Co. to add 790 acres of national forest to its federal leases tapped by the Sufco Mine near Salina.

Utah’s oldest and largest mine, producing 5 million to 6 million tons a year, Sufco is among the world’s "most productive and technologically advanced underground coal mines,” yielding enough coal to provide for the residential power needs of 3 million people, the Interior release states. The enlarged lease adds just over a year to Sufco’s life at current production levels.