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Energy Journal: PRB coal firm continues to leave Wyoming landowners with 'substantial concerns'
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Energy Journal: PRB coal firm continues to leave Wyoming landowners with 'substantial concerns'

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Energy

A truck moves dirt and debris in Antelope Mine outside of Wright in 2017. A landowner group has expressed concerns over the owner's ability to exercise sovereign immunity.

Welcome to the Star-Tribune’s Energy Journal, a play-by-play of the past week in Wyoming’s wild world of energy. I’m your energy and natural resources reporter, Camille Erickson. Sign up for the newsletter here.

A citizens group urged state regulators last week to address a ballooning list of legal and environmental concerns it has with one of the nation's largest coal companies.

Powder River Basin Resource Council asked the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality in a letter to hold the new owner of the Antelope, Cordero Rojo and Spring Creek coal mines accountable to all state and federal laws. The company, Navajo Transitional Energy Company, recently assumed operation of the trio of Powder River Basin mines from their former bankrupt owner, Cloud Peak Energy.

The Navajo Nation-based firm is a tribal entity, originally created under Navajo law to oversee a coal mine and plant on the Navajo Nation. The firm could therefore feasibly apply its sovereign immunity if charged with U.S. mining violations at its Wyoming and Montana mines, the group's letter reasoned.

In other words, sovereign immunity could shield the company from state or federal jurisdiction, like the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, the Mineral Leasing Act or the National Environmental Policy Act, the group added. Last year, a case in the Federal Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in several ways affirmed NTEC’s ability to exercise tribal sovereign immunity.

"NTEC’s assertion of sovereign immunity threatens royalty collection on the part of the government and the exercise of public participation opportunities, including legal appeal rights, associated with federal coal leasing and mining plan decisions made by the United States Department of Interior," the letter stated.

NTEC has asserted again and again it intends to abide by all U.S. state and federal laws when operating the Antelope and Cordero Rojo mines in Wyoming, and the Spring Creek mine in Montana. And Wyoming regulators reaffirmed their commitment to ensure the mines are held in compliance with all environmental laws.

A Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality spokesman said the company would be held accountable if any violation did occur, but none have been found.

The coal operator has yet to obtain the leases or permits from the mines' previous owner, due in part to outstanding legal negotiations. Before a permit transfer can be initiated, a coal company must line up sufficient bonds for future cleanup liabilities related to the mines.

For these three mines, reclamation obligations total over $400 million. NTEC is still working to obtain surety bonds and is also fulfilling financial liabilities left behind by the mines' former owners.

"This type of setup with NTEC and Cloud Peak meets all our rules and regulations and they are fully bonded," said Keith Guille, a spokesman for Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. "If by chance, unfortunately, a mine were to close, the bonds are in place that they would be there to cover reclamation. They would be held responsible, and that goes for enforcement, too."

But the owners' indefinite status as a contract miner has groups like the Powder River Basin Resource Council worried. 

Regardless of these ongoing efforts, NTEC has still been able to operate the mines as a contract miner in Wyoming. Cloud Peak Energy remains on the hook for any reclamation responsibilities until the permits transfer to the new owner.

When a permit transfer is eventually triggered, the public will also have an opportunity to weigh in.

"We do appreciate the concerns and interest that (the Powder River Basin Resource Council) and individuals have about these very important issues," Guille said. "We recognize that this could affect all of Wyoming and the citizens and the environment."

In other news...

COAL

  • Navajo Transitional Energy Company, the new owner of three Powder River Basin coal mines, says it has established an agreement with the U.S. Interior Department to pay $10 million in overdue mineral production taxes back to the federal government in installments.
  • U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney sponsored legislation Wednesday to advance research into alternative uses for coal, adding fuel to the state’s all-out campaign to buoy the ailing coal industry central to its economy. The Creating Opportunities and Leveraging Technologies for Coal Carbon, or COAL TeCC, Act would establish a program through the U.S. Department of Energy to accelerate commercial coal product development — like carbon fiber, graphite and carbon foam — to expand the mineral’s use beyond the electricity market.
  • Two dozen people died in mining accidents in the U.S. last year, the lowest nationwide total ever recorded, according to the Department of Labor.
  • Gov. Mark Gordon reaffirmed his belief that the fossil fuels Wyoming has long relied on still have a place in the global marketplace, even as greater economic shifts have diminished their standing worldwide and the state has begun the process of understanding an economy where coal is no longer king, Nick Reynolds reports.

OIL & GAS

  • Oil and gas firm Southland Royalty Company LLC filed for bankruptcy last week. The company has operations in Wyoming's Green River Basin and owes $1 million in severance taxes to the state, according to court documents. It cited market pressures and "depressing revenues generated by production activities" as reasons for needing to restructure (via Wall Street Journal).
  • Bureau of Land Management sold thousands of acres of land in Park County in last year's final quarterly lease sale, despite protests from environmental groups. (via Powell Tribune)

WIND & SOLAR

WILDLIFE

  • As part of a listening tour, Gov. Mark Gordon visited Rawlins, Pinedale, Kemmerer and Rock Springs on Saturday to listen to residents who may be affected by the implementation of the new executive order on migration corridors. 
  • Two environmental groups have given notice they intend to file a lawsuit to stop a proposed underground natural gas pipeline from Idaho to Wyoming the groups say will harm protected grizzly bears and other wildlife.

Last week in numbers

Friday oil prices:

  • West Texas Intermediate (WTI) $52.14, Brent (ICE) $58.29

Friday natural gas:

  • Henry Hub $1.91, Wyoming Pool $1.72, Opal $1.74

Baker Hughes rig count:

  • U.S 790 (-4), Wyoming 23 (-0)

Quote of the week

“There is no question that coal is a very important part of the state’s economy, so anything that can be done to use coal differently or more cleanly — to keep coal as a marketable commodity — is huge. And that’s what these technologies over the past (43) years that the Department of Energy has been in existence do.”

— Jason Begger, executive director of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority

Welcome to the Star-Tribune’s Energy Journal, a play-by-play of the past week in Wyoming’s wild world of energy. I’m your energy and natural resources reporter, Camille Erickson. Sign up for the newsletter here.

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