BILLINGS (AP) – Several people told federal officials in a crowded public meeting they need to change how royalties are collected from coal mining, while others questioned whether the government is trying to put the coal industry out of business.
The U.S. Interior Department's public meeting in Billings is one of five on how the government leases coal and collects royalties from mining on public lands. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has said the Bureau of Land Management wants to know if taxpayers receive a fair return on the sale of publicly-owned coal reserves.
The Interior Department has proposed an overhaul of the royalty structure that now allows companies to pay the 12.5 percent royalty to the government on the price at which they sell coal to their affiliates. The affiliates then sell the coal for a higher price overseas.
"It's time that you crack down on coal companies that have been getting sweetheart deals for too long," said Renette Kaline of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Tribe. "You must take a look at what you're doing and the ripple effect it has on our lives, our land."
Several miners from Cloud Peak Energy's Spring Creek mine in Decker sat in the audience wearing hardhats and work clothes, the Billings Gazette reported.
Industry supporters began to speak about an hour into the meeting to loud applause.
"I'm scared," said Ryan White, a Spring Creek coal miner. "I'm fearful of my future. I go to work every day wondering when the federal government will put my employer out of business."
White and others said coal companies are already struggling because of competition from natural gas and stringent regulations, and higher royalties would harm them further.
Before the meeting, Jim Orchard, Cloud Peak's senior vice president of marketing and government affairs, told the newspaper that claims of underpaid royalties are unfounded.
Nearly all of Cloud Peak's sales are to domestic buyers, while just 8 percent are sales to foreign buyers and small coal domestic coal customers prefer that affiliate Cloud Peak Energy Logistics deliver the coal.
The series of meetings also includes stops in Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Washington, D.C.