Congress Running Out of Time to Renew AML Tax

Tax James Marshall, E&E News reporter House lawmakers passed two bipartisan coal mine reclamation measures in June as part of the body’s massive infrastructure package, H.R. 2.
There’s no chance the Republican-controlled Senate will take up the legislation as is, but House Democrats are looking to use it during negotiations on a possible bipartisan infrastructure deal and COVID-19 aid.

One of the reclamation bills would reauthorize the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) fee coal companies pay, and the other would focus part of the AML fund on spurring economic activity at former mine sites. Supporters must now overcome partisanship and geographical rivalries between mining states in Appalachia and the current leader in coal, Wyoming.

Coal field activists, states and their allies on the Hill have for years been laying the groundwork for re-authorization, but time is almost up; the fee is set to expire next year. “An AML re-authorization will require negotiation and compromise between senators from different regions of the country and from different political parties to become law,” said Kelley Moore, spokesperson for Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.).

Coal operators nationwide have paid into the AML fund with a fee on each ton produced since the federal government started regulating the industry in 1977. Most of the money goes to states and tribes to reclaim mine lands abandoned before that year. The fund has since raised $11.3 billion, including interest. About $9 billion of the total has been spent.

But the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement says at least $10 billion worth of reclamation remains. That figure is a rough estimate because sinkholes, subsidence and happenstance often reveal previously unknown mines from centuries past. H.R. 4248, by Reps. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) and Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.), would reauthorize the program for 15 years past its current September 2021 expiration date and keep the current fee levels.

The other bill is H.R. 2156, the “Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More (RECLAIM) Act.” Also sponsored by Cartwright, the bill would speed up $1 billion in AML spending over the next five years on projects that prioritize economic development, such as cutting off acid mine drainage to boost growth in the outdoor recreation economy.

The National Mining Association is critical of AML spending and has called for more oversight of the program. Conor Bernstein, a spokesperson for the industry group, said the “RECLAIM Act” “distracts from AML’s intended purpose, which is to focus on mine cleanup.”

The leader of the Congressional Coal Caucus, Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.), is one of more than a dozen Republicans to co-sponsor the “RECLAIM Act.” Cartwright’s AML bill has less widespread GOP backing but has gained the support of nearly the entire House delegation from Pennsylvania, the state with the most AML sites.

Thom Kay, senior legislative representative for Appalachian Voices, said passing these bipartisan bills that stimulate the economy in a sustainable way should be a no-brainer. “They’re not just good for the environment, but they also create jobs. To me that seems like exactly what Congress should be looking for right now,” Kay said.

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