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Utah hearing on federal coal-leasing reform draws hundreds

May 19, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Coal miners and their supporters came out in force to a public hearing Thursday in Salt Lake City, blasting a moratorium on federal coal leases as the latest attack in a war on coal that unfairly blames fossil fuels for climate change and air quality problems.

They also touted the industry’s vital economic contributions in Utah and bemoaned society’s disrespect for the industry that helps power the world.

“For us, this is real. This is our kids, this is our livelihood. Most of us were raised down there” in the central state coal region, said Keith Kimball, general manager of a trucking company in Salina that hauls coal. “The only way to get to stay is for these mines to keep running.”

Most opponents of the moratorium, from central Utah counties, wore bright yellow shirts with “coal” in large letters beneath the words: “Reliable. Affordable. Proven. Abundant.”

They outnumbered environmentalists and others who spoke in support the Obama administration plan.

Supporters of the moratorium said the action ensures protection of iconic Western lands and shields outdoor and tourism industries that are vital to Utah and other states. Speakers included environmentalists, tourist town leaders, doctors and a priest.

Several speakers implored coal miners to accept the reality that the country is moving away from coal and fossil fuels that harm the environment and toward renewable energy.

“Prolonging the life of a dying industry that is detrimental to the health of our planet and the people who mine the coal is foolhardy,” said Mary McGann, a member of the Grand County Council in Moab. “We could better serve of the people of these hard-hit communities by investing in economic development and job training.”

The big turnout was a repeat of an EPA public hearing in January when coal supporters dominated a discussion about proposed rules that would limit coal emissions.

Speakers this time conveyed a growing frustration among residents of central Utah counties where several coal mines have closed and unemployment rates are about twice as high as the Salt Lake City area.

Coal-fueled plants now provide about one-third of all U.S. electricity, down from about half a decade ago.

American coal mines now employ about 56,700 people, a number that was once 10 times as high.

By contrast, the fast-growing solar industry now employs more than 210,000 workers. Wind energy accounts for another 77,000 by federal estimates.

The session on Thursday was the second of six hearings planned by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management this summer to get feedback on the coal leasing program, including the three-year moratorium announced in January by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. The first hearing was held in Casper, Wyoming, earlier this week.

Other hearings are planned in Knoxville, Tennessee, Seattle, Grand Junction, Colorado, and Pittsburgh.

Any changes that result from the feedback could have a significant effect a U.S. coal industry, depending on who is elected president in November.

In Utah, state lawmakers voted this year spend more than $50 million in public money to help build a California shipping port to export locally mined coal. The contentious plan has been derided by environmental groups that call it a misuse of public money to prop up the struggling coal industry.

U.S. Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Chris Stewart voiced their opposition to the moratorium through staffers who read statements at the Thursday hearing.

Laura Nelson, director of the Utah Office of Energy Development, said the state disagrees strongly with the moratorium, insisting it was rushed, uniformed and threatens the industry that provides 2,000 high-paying jobs in the state.

She said 83 percent of coal in Utah comes from federal lands.

Those lands are fragile and valuable and should be protected for future generations, said Sarah Bates of the National Wildlife Federation, which supports the moratorium.

“The recent epidemic of coal company bankruptcies underscores the need for reform,” Bates said.