U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, left, laughs with Darrin Old Coyote (copy)

Then-U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, left, laughs with Darrin Old Coyote, then chairman of Montana's Crow Tribe, during a 2015 announcement in Billings of a proposal to make permanent a tax break for coal mined from reserves owned by American Indian tribes. Westmoreland Coal Company produced 6.5 million tons of coal the previous year from the Absaloka mine on the Crow's southeastern Montana reservation.

MISSOULA — American coal production supports energy independence, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in justifying removal of a federal moratorium on public land coal leases.

“It is better to produce energy domestically and export it with reasonable regulation than it is to be dependent on a lot of other countries,” Zinke said in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. “If you want to see environmental policies gone bad, take a look at energy production in the Middle East or Africa.”

Zinke announced two departmental orders following President Donald Trump’s executive order rolling back the Clean Power Plan. One overturns a 2016 moratorium by President Obama on new coal leases until new environmental impact statements could be completed. The second starts a review of past Interior agency actions to balance climate-change policies with job creation, especially regarding oil and natural gas development.

Zinke also chartered a new Royalty Policy Committee looking at the revenue and rent coming to the federal government from energy developers. The committee may also recommend changes to regulations on royalty payments.

“All of us as taxpayers and citizens have a stake to make sure we get value from our resources,” Zinke said. “The ultimate goal is to make sure the royalties are transparent in how we collect them, so industry can price them accordingly.”

Undervalued coal sales have cost Montana taxpayers at least $1 billion annually over the past three decades, according to former state revenue director Dan Bucks.

The moves drew mixed reactions from industry and environmental advocates, and within Indian Country. Zinke quoted former Crow Tribal Chairman Darrin Old Coyote’s wish to increase coal jobs on the Crow Indian Reservation, which covers a large expanse of Montana’s coal reserves.

But at the adjacent Northern Cheyenne Reservation, Tribal Chairman Jace Killsback criticized Zinke for failing to respond to a tribal request for consultation on lifting the coal lease moratorium. The Northern Cheyenne Tribe launched one of two lawsuits on Wednesday challenging the Interior moratorium removal.

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“It’s 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 or evaluating the impacts to our reservation or our residents,” Killsback wrote in an email.

“The nation is concerned that coal mining near the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation will impact our pristine air and water quality, will adversely affect our sacred cultural properties and traditional spiritual practices and will ultimately destroy the traditional way of life that the nation has fought to preserve for centuries.”

A coalition of environmental groups including Citizens for Clean Energy, Montana Environmental Information Center, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Wildearth Guardians and Defenders of Wildlife also sued the Interior Department on Wednesday, noting that coal production was already dropping out of favor compared to cheaper and less-polluting natural gas.

While repeal supporters praised the move, some did so for reasons that undercut the coal industry. The Cato’s Center for the Study of Science Patrick Michaels said Trump’s rollback of Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) would make a more efficient national electrical grid.

“Absent governmental interferences like the CPP, market forces will continue to drive utilities to switch from coal to natural gas for power generation, reducing carbon dioxide emissions by over 50 percent, compared to coal-fired generation, for each unit of electricity production,” Michaels wrote in an email. “Eliminating the CPP will show that free markets and environmental protection go hand-in-hand.”

On the press call, Zinke said it wasn’t the job of the federal government to be “picking winners and losers” in the market.

“Coal still provides a significant amount of energy to us, and I don’t see that changing,” Zinke said. “Overseas, China is moving from nuclear and building more coal-fired plants. It is better for our allies to leasing cleaner, low-sulfur-grade coal than it is to burn dirtier coal products from China and the Asian basin.”

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