(Gillette, Wyo.) Could Wyoming taxpayers one day be on the hook for expensive mining reclamation requirements?
A new study by the Powder River Basin Resource Council speculates that the rate of reclamation is too slow, and should companies fail to meet their obligations sometime in the future, those obligations could fall the taxpayers.
“Waiting until the end of a mine’s life adds risk that reclamation may not meet the required standards and could become a burden to the state, counties, and companies,” said Stacy Page, a council member and former regulator involved in reclamation.
The council proposes a few reforms to increase reclamation efforts, but a representative of Cloud Peak pointed to flaws in the report’s methodology. He said increasing costs now would actually make reclamation efforts more difficult.
“Efforts by anti-fossil fuel groups to increase mining costs by gaming the reclamation rules are simply counterproductive to reclamation. The more financial pressure artificially imposed on mining by raising leasing costs, taxes, and royalties, the more likely companies will be unable to finish their important reclamation work,” said Cloud Peak Energy spokesperson Rick Curtsinger.
Phases and incentives
The study argues that quantity is a critical measure when it comes to reclamation. Federal law requires reclamation efforts to be contemporaneous with mining production, meaning it is a process occurring alongside further mining.
The study focused on 14 mines, which were chosen because most of them lie within the Powder River Basin.
“That’s our main stomping ground,” said Hesid Brandow, organizer for the council.
The 14 mines have disturbed 131,573 acres of land, which is about 206 square miles, an area eight times the size of Cheyenne. Of that area, 3,167 acres, which is 2.4 percent of the total, have been fully reclaimed.
“We’re not keeping pace,” Brandow said.
Reclamation is done in three phases, which can take over 10 years to fully complete. The report notes that when completed reclamation efforts in the first two phases are included, nearly 41 percent of all the disturbed land from mining operations has been partially or fully reclaimed.
The report points to three reasons why the council believes reclamation efforts are not moving quickly enough: self-bonding removes financial incentives to reclaim mined land, high reclamation standards make the process slow, and the definition of land not subject to reclamation is too loose.
As a company completes reclamation phases, portions of its bonds are released. When a company self-bonds, these phased bond releases don’t apply.
Brandow said they also included Pacificorp’s Jim Bridger mine since it is self-bonded, specifically to try to measure this issue.
Curtsinger said there’s a larger incentive to reclamation than just financial ones. Reclaimed land produces value for Wyoming residents.
“We do this not only because it’s required—as we go above and beyond current reclamation requirements—but in large part because our employees who fish and hunt, hike and bird watch, camp and enjoy the outdoors, demand it,” he explained.
Jobs and definitions
The report also looks at a category of mining land called “long-term mining or reclamation facilities.” This category is excluded from contemporaneous reclamation requirements and accounts for about one-fourth of the total disturbed mining land.
The report found that the amount of land in this category in the individual mines varied greatly among the 14 mines, ranging from as low as 9 percent at Cloud Peak’s Antelope Mine to as much as 40 percent at Peabody’s School Creek Mine.
“This indicates that mines are using this definition in different ways,” Brandow said.
Among the council’s recommendations laid out in the report is tightening up this definition.
Curtsinger said the report includes a lot of land that unfairly and inaccurately inflates the amount of unclaimed mining land.
“When anti-fossil fuel groups claim that large amounts of land remain unreclaimed, they include thousands of acres of land that is fully reclaimed but not yet out of bond, as well as tens of thousands of acres that has never been disturbed. They also include roads and the land that buildings occupy as ‘evidence’ that reclamation is not taking place. These are the areas that will only be reclaimed when the mine closes,” Curtsinger said.
The council’s report also argues that reclamation efforts would create jobs and further diversify Wyoming’s economy. This would lessen layoffs during downturns, the report argues.
The report concludes that reclamation must be given more priority while the mines are still profitable. Otherwise, the state could end up in a situation similar to its orphan well issue.
“It’s not unprecedented that this could happen,” Brandow warned.
Curtsinger, however, argued the council’s agenda lends itself to a biased report that inflates the degree of the problem.
“The Powder River Basin Resource Council is essentially opposed to any natural resource development and would cripple Wyoming’s economy and the standard of living for thousands of Wyoming families. It has a well-established track record of distorting the facts to fit its anti-resource development narrative, and this work of fiction is true to form,” Curtsinger said.