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More Bad News For Coal Mine-Reliant States


In President Obama's State of the Union address, there was a line you might have missed, but it caught the ear of people in the energy industry.


BARACK OBAMA: I'm going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources so that they better reflect the cost they impose on taxpayers and our planet.

SIMON: On Friday, the Department of the Interior made good on that promise. They put a freeze on new federal coal leases while it reviews the program. From coal country, Wyoming Public Radio's Stephanie Joyce reports on the latest in the Obama administration's climate agenda.

STEPHANIE JOYCE, BYLINE: When Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced the temporary moratorium on a call with reporters, she portrayed the review as a non-partisan, common sense move, pointing out the federal coal program hasn't been updated since the 1980s.


SALLY JEWELL: That was a time, 30 years ago, when our nation had very different priorities and needs. The result was a federal coal program designed to get as much coal out of the ground as possible, and in many ways, that's the program that we've been operating ever since.

JOYCE: Today, 40 percent of the coal mined in the U.S. comes from federal lands, mostly in Wyoming. The government review will address whether taxpayers are getting a fair return on that coal, as well as how to square the coal program with the country's new climate goals. But while Jewell might have wanted to come off as non-partisan, many people in Wyoming heard something different.

TRAVIS DETI: Obama to Wyoming, drop dead. Am I on the record on that (laughter).

JOYCE: That's Travis Deti with the Wyoming Mining Association.

DETI: Since the overwhelming bulk of the federal coal is mined out of the basin in Wyoming, it's obviously directed towards us.

JOYCE: In practice, the moratorium won't have much of an immediate effect here. It doesn't stop existing coal production. And the federal government estimates that, nationwide, the leases companies already have could supply 20 years of U.S. demand. But the review is likely to bring about changes that will make it more expensive to mine coal on federal land, and that could have a big impact on Wyoming. Coal provides a quarter of state revenues. State Senator Michael Flatern represents the town of Gillette.

MICHAEL VON FLATERN: The value of coal has always kind of stayed steady. It's always been there, so - and it's always been expanding.

JOYCE: Von Flatern says without that steady source of revenue, Wyoming won't be able to pay for its roads and schools and public services, at least not at the level it does today.

For now, though, people in Gillette largely greeted the announcement as just the latest in a bunch of bad news. Nate Hardy is a coal miner and the owner of Gillette Brewing Company. He says between low natural gas prices competing with coal, new carbon regulations for power plants and recent coal company bankruptcies, the mood around town is pretty dismal.

NATE HARDY: Everybody realizes that we're in a downturn and have been for a while. Hopefully, we get another noom.

JOYCE: But Hardy knows that coal reforms might not be the end of it.

HARDY: I think the community as a whole feels like not only coal is targeted, but a lot of other things are targeted. We are the energy capital of the nation, so have coal, oil, gas.

JOYCE: If Obama is true to his pledge in the State of the Union, expect to see changes coming in the near future to federal leasing of oil, too.

For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Joyce.

SIMON: That story comes to us from Inside Energy, a public media collaboration that focuses on America's energy issue. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephanie Joyce
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