Coal industry seeks federal help amid coronavirus outbreak

(Susan Montoya Bryan | AP file photo) This Aug. 20, 2019, file photo, shows the coal stockpile at the Navajo Generating Station near Page, Ariz. Coal-fired power plants and mines have been huge economic drivers in the Four Corners region for decades. The Navajo Generating Station near Page and its feed mine shut down last year. The San Juan Generating Station near Farmington, N.M., is scheduled to shutter in 2022 and the nearby Four Corners Power Plant in 2031.

Washington • Hotels, airlines and cruise providers are lobbying Congress for bailouts amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak that has dramatically slashed business.

Now the coal industry wants in.

Big coal is asking the federal government to waive fees and order coal-fired power plants to remain operating during the ongoing threat posed by the virus that has infected thousands and killed hundreds across America.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday put the estimated U.S. death toll at 201 from among 15,219 cases.

The National Mining Association wants President Donald Trump to use his authority to “suspend or reduce” royalties coal operators pay the federal government, a portion of which goes to states, including millions to Utah. The association also asks for a cut in the fees industry pays to clean up old mines and to pay for miners with black lung disease.

“The fuel security provided by coal reserves at power plants offers resiliency to a system that is bracing for uncertainty, and it is imperative to keep these plants online — whether through the use of the Defense Production Act or other means — in the interest of national security,” the association’s president Rich Nolan wrote in the letter, according to Reuters, which obtained the letter.

The letter, sent to Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., seeks help so that “coal companies have access to the necessary cash flow they need to continue operations.”

Democrats seized on the letter as an example of an industry coming hat-in-hand to the government for a bailout despite the fact it hasn’t been affected by it.

The coal industry is taking advantage of the country’s current circumstances to advocate for policies that are completely unrelated to the current crisis,” wrote House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz.., and Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., in a letter to House and Senate leaders.

“It is disappointing that the coal industry is advocating for policies that would not help the tens of thousands of sick, retired, and out-of-work miners that need immediate help and the communities that are still recovering from the legacy of environmental damage caused by the coal industry.”

The two Democrats say Congress should “reject the [mining association’s] wish-list and focus federal resources on the workers, families, and communities that are being hardest hit by this crisis.”

“Utah’s coal producers are facing severe economic disruption given massive volatility in energy, commodity, and export markets as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Utah Mining Association has asked Utah’s federal delegation to support a temporary suspension of the federal—not state—portion of mineral royalty payments for coal and other leasable minerals produced on federal lands,” said Brian Somers, president of the Utah Mining Association. "The coal industry is critical to Utah’s economy both by providing the fuel that powers 64% of Utah’s electrical grid, and as one of the largest employers in rural Utah. A temporary reduction in federal royalty payments will help to ensure Utah’s lights stay on and miners in rural Utah stay on the job.”

Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, the top Republican on the Natural Resources Committee, did not respond to a request for comment.