For some miners, a small victory in politics

Coal mining in the West is an old tradition, with coal traveling between mines for nearly two centuries. It’s a way to make money in a shifting market, and at least some people feel the impact: A world concerned about greenhouse gases, climate change and air pollution has made pollution of coal relatively rare. But the West’s recent massive coal leasing program, and the reality that we still burn it in large amounts, has created a big opportunity.

The land-locked Powder River Basin spans Montana and Wyoming, where a quarter of all the coal mined in the United States was located in 2016. Before this year, the Powder River Basin was almost entirely landlocked. In 2001, the BLM issued a series of permits to allow for coal-mine leasing on federal lands. And it seems to have been a boon for the industry. Because most mining in Wyoming and Montana is currently done on private lands, though, the agency could record massive tracts of land coming under lease – almost 300,000 acres in 2017. But largely, companies don’t reveal which parcels are on the fringes of leases at any given time.

In other words, mining companies have little to no track record of working with environmentalists and local communities.

Just last week, the bureau said that it had quietly started releasing data on its 2017 permits, and it is drawing crowds from coal producers and local communities who want to check out what they’re holding. There are documents that identify where and how coal has been mined, and how much coal has been made available, but also broader details like where each company is on a lease. And there’s a record of which companies are active and which companies are not.

One company in particular, Patriot Coal, has been the backbone of the new mining – and excited environmentalists and the company’s employees alike. The company, which spun off from Peabody Energy in 2014, plans to spend some $500 million to expand its operations to more than 8 million tons per year of production – and come up with 6,000 direct and indirect jobs.

Patriot, said spokeswoman Jessica A. McRorie, had applied for leases to develop coal mines in both Colorado and Wyoming and that it is continuing to “identify opportunities to build the company into the largest low-cost, quality-focused coal producer in the Powder River Basin.”

But last year, Patriot released details of a policy of maintaining neutral coal to electricity through a community relations company, according to internal company emails obtained by a few major coal companies. McRorie told the Washington Post that the policy reflects “our ongoing commitment to our employees, communities and our shareholders that the most important goal is bringing value to the employees, communities and stakeholders who depend on the coal we produce.” She said that Patriot is constantly evaluating its participation in community and environmental issues as it decides to continue the partnership.

It’s a spectacular rise for a company that came to bankruptcy in 2008, and that left its mine employees without much in the way of severance. Since then, it has agreed to invest $1 billion in its retiree medical plans, as well as help with proposed climate policies such as maintaining solar and wind development in certain areas. McRorie said the company was “discussing options to maximize the financial impact of our future participation in community activities, but declined to offer additional details.”

Bryan Clark, who was one of Patriot’s three unionized workers at its mine and is now a consultant to the company, said, “When you grow people from the ground up like that, the company gets all of the credit, the local communities get all of the credit.”

Clark, who is also a graduate student at Eastern Washington University, said that the coal industry is entering a new era. “This might be the last gasp of a dying industry,” he said. He argued that it’s not necessarily necessarily bad for the environment. He said that coal extraction generates carbon, but it also creates new jobs that pay a lot more than other jobs. He also said that if environmentalists and politicians on both sides of the political aisle can work together, coal production could flourish.

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