Energy Environment Montana Politics Ryan Zinke

Secretary Zinke Bows Down Before King Coal, Ignores Montana Tribe

Written by Don Pogreba
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Secretary Zinke’s donors in the coal industry are getting their money’s worth early in the Trump Administration, as the Teddy Roosevelt Republican who once believed that climate change was a “national security threat” just disregarded taxpayers and violated obligations to consult with Montana Indian tribes before opening up more coal mining on federal lands.

In one of his first acts, Secretary Zinke abandoned a review of the federal coal leasing program that started in 2015, arguing that it was “expensive and unnecessary.”

As Vox points out, Zinke’s decision will allow the continuation of non-competitive bidding, no transparency, and damage to the environment:

In short, this looks like the worst-case scenario for the federal coal leasing program. It will go forward using procedures and pricing that have been clearly identified as inadequate, ripping off taxpayers, subsidizing the profits of coal executives, and working against national climate policy. Comprehensive reform is out the window, replaced by a politically appointed board that will set prices behind closed doors.

Those costs are not insignificant. According to the the Center for American Progress, the long-term direct and social costs of the way Powder River Basin coal is bid out total $19 billion a year. Even if one does not accept the obvious costs to health and the environment, the simple math of non-competitive bidding means huge losses of revenue:

The artificially low market price of Powder River Basin coal costs U.S. taxpayers in several ways. Although the GAO and the Office of Inspector General refrained from assessing the full loss to taxpayers from the noncompetitive nature of BLM’s coal-leasing program, a third-party review estimated that over the past 30 years, the government’s undervaluation of coal may have cost taxpayers upward of $30 billion in lost revenue. What’s more, taxpayers are missing out on royalty payments that would accrue if the coal were sold at a higher price on the market.

And that impact isn’t just to the federal government. Back in 2015, former Montana revenue director Dan Bucks explained that states lose out on revenue, too:

When coal companies underpay their federal royalties, state and local governments suffer nearly half that loss. That is because the federal government shares its royalty receipts from Montana coal with the state of Montana, and the state splits its share with the counties where the production occurs.

Who makes up for that lost revenue? You and I do.

Now, it’s possible that all the experts are wrong and that Secretary Zinke knows more than the economists, scientists, and others who’ve studied the issue. Though unlikely, one has to accept the possibility, which is exactly why the program needed review. It’s indefensible to continue a program that is potentially costing taxpayers across the nation billions of dollars with completing a review that will provide answers to that question. Secretary Zinke owes it to the people who are subsidizing massive coal corporations to at least answer that question before acting.

Not everyone is accepting Zinke’s decision. The Northern Cheyenne, who Zinke refused to even meet with before reversing the coal moratorium, have sued Interior to block the change:

“It is alarming and unacceptable for the United States, which has a solemn obligation as the Northern Cheyenne’s trustee, to sign up for many decades of harmful coal mining near and around our homeland without first consulting with our Nation,” Tribal Chairman Jace Killsback said.

It seems the Secretary who promised to remember Montana when he took his new job in the swamp has already forgotten the people back home. No one should be surprised that Congressman Zinke, who loves coal almost as much as he loves a catchphrase, has acted aggressively to promote it. It should, however, be a surprise–and a disappointment–that he’s moved so swiftly to block sensible review and ignore the will of those who were once his constituents.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is a seventeen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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