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Barrasso pushes federal relief for coal, nuclear
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Barrasso pushes federal relief for coal, nuclear

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As tensions mount around President Joe Biden’s sweeping infrastructure plan, Sen. John Barrasso is advocating for energy policy intended to bring relief to the struggling coal and nuclear industries — and the Wyoming economy.

Program boost or industry handout?

In a deal with Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, whose vast Energy Infrastructure Act carries a $95 million price tag, Barrasso negotiated a change to the proposed reauthorization of the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Program that aims to lessen the burden on coal producers without jeopardizing reclamation funds.

The program imposes fees on active coal mines to fund restoration of mines that were abandoned before reclamation became mandatory in 1977. The existing fee authorization will expire if it’s not renewed by Sept. 30.

“The coal industry has long faced economic and regulatory headwinds,” Sarah Durdaller, press secretary for the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, wrote in an email to the Star-Tribune. “The purpose of lowering the [abandoned mine land] fee is to provide a small measure of relief to our operators. This relief will help ensure production, fee collection, and reclamation can continue into the future.”

Since 1977, the program has supported reclamation of more than 25,000 acres of abandoned mine land in Wyoming, according to the Department of Environmental Quality.

Surface mines currently pay a reclamation fee of 28 cents per ton. Underground mines pay 12 cents; lignite mines pay 8. If the senators’ arrangement becomes law, those fees will be reduced by 20% through 2034. The change could amount to millions in savings for Wyoming’s mining industry, which produced 41% of the nation’s coal last year, primarily in open-pit mines subject to the highest reclamation fee.

The bill would also allocate an additional $11.3 billion in federal dollars to the reclamation program — more than offsetting the fee cuts, but frustrating environmental groups who oppose reducing fees.

“This is a substantial handout to coal bosses at the expense of long-term reclamation needs,” said Lukas Ross, a program manager at Friends of the Earth. “We should absolutely repair the harm caused to our lands that mining has inflicted, and make sure that good union jobs are what gets it done. But do we really need more corporate welfare as part of the trade?”

The proposed change wouldn’t be the first to curtail the program’s fees. In 1977, reclamation fees were set at 35 cents per ton for surface mines, 15 cents for underground mines and 10 cents for lignite mines. If they’d been adjusted for inflation, fees for surface mining would have risen to upwards of $1.50 per ton. Instead, they’ve been falling since 2007.

The new cuts would cost the program approximately $460 million over the next 13 years, according to the Ohio River Valley Institute. And with the price of reclaiming all abandoned U.S. mine lands estimated to be as high as $25 billion, Ross said reducing fees sends the wrong message.

“It’s sort of hard to call something climate legislation if it’s lowering the tax, or the fee burden, on coal companies,” he said.

Despite the agreement with Manchin, Barrasso voted last week not to advance the Energy Infrastructure Act. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee ultimately advanced the bill by a vote of 13–7.

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A long-shot nuclear lifeline

Barrasso is also a co-sponsor of the American Nuclear Infrastructure Act, which was introduced last November and reintroduced last week by a bipartisan group that also included Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WY), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Cory Booker (D-NJ).

The bill would subsidize the existing U.S. nuclear fleet, expand workforce training, promote research into advanced nuclear technologies and accelerate the development of new facilities, like the Natrium reactor headed to one of Wyoming’s retiring coal plants.

“Because nuclear energy reliably powers homes and businesses and provides half of our nation’s carbon-dioxide free energy, nuclear remains a bipartisan priority on the [Environment and Public Works] Committee,” ranking member Capito said in a statement.

The plan to keep existing facilities operating has drawn criticism from environmental groups concerned about reactors’ environmental justice implications and the relatively high costs of nuclear power generation compared with other electricity sources.

“In essence, the argument that’s being made here is that taxpayers should pay twice: Once now to keep aging, uneconomic reactors online, and again when these units need to be replaced with clean renewables,” Ross, from Friends of the Earth, said. “Why delay the inevitable? Why pay twice?”

The proposal also aims to limit importation of uranium from Russia and China, which currently supply nearly all of the fuel used in U.S. nuclear reactors, and establish a domestic uranium supply chain — a target that could be an economic boon to Wyoming if achieved.

“Wyoming has long fueled our nation’s nuclear power plants and we want to keep it that way,” Barrasso said in a statement.

But the domestic uranium industry faces a number of obstacles. Environmental regulations make uranium costlier to produce in the U.S. than in Russia or China. And though uranium must be enriched before it can be used as fuel, there is virtually no domestic enrichment capacity, so uranium mined in the U.S. is shipped out of the country for processing.

With many reactors already struggling to compete with cheaper sources of electricity, nuclear plants’ operators can’t — or won’t — pay extra for domestic fuel when they can import it for less.

Mark Doelger, a registered professional geologist and president of B & H Geologists, had hoped a strategic uranium reserve proposed by the previous version of the bill might reverse the industry’s decades-long decline. But, he said, even a strategic reserve might not be enough.

In the original bill, “there were no details as to price and amount of uranium that would be stockpiled,” Doegler said. “So if the price was low and the production was low, or the purchase of reserves was low, then the impact would be low. And I was skeptical that there would be a high impact.”

The version of the bill reintroduced last week no longer includes a strategic reserve. Doegler thinks that’s bad news for the U.S. uranium industry.

“I really don’t know what incentives could allow us to compete against state bonds or state-subsidized mines owned by Russia and China. I don’t think there’s enough margin in the United States taxes and regulation that would allow us to effectively compete,” he said.

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