Wyoming to Get Windfall From Item Tucked Into Highway Bill

(Bloomberg) — Wyoming stands to receive hundreds of

millions of dollars in federal payments intended for mine

reclamation over the next decade under a little-noticed

provision of the highway bill working its way through Congress.

The language, part of a compromise by congressional

negotiators to fund highways and transportation projects over

the next five years, would do away with a per-state cap that had

been as high as $28 million on annual payments from the

Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund.

Sustained by fees on coal production, the fund is designed

to pay the costs of sealing old mine shafts and securing

potentially toxic sites, but can be redirected for other

purposes. For years, the money has automatically flowed back to

coal-producing states such as Wyoming that have already cleaned

up their worst old mines. The state has used some of its mine

money to renovate an arena and build a science building at the

University of Wyoming.

“This reiterates why Congress is held in such low esteem by

the taxpayers,” said Thomas Schatz, president of Citizens

Against Government Waste. “To them, it’s business as usual; to

them, the Republicans can’t be as fiscally responsible as people

would like.”

Highway Bill

The $305 billion highway bill, which is set for a House

vote later this week, would hand Wyoming $241.9 million to make

up for lost payments while the cap was in place and get rid of

the ceiling going forward — changes that could translate to an

extra $595 million for the state over the next decade. States

that have cleaned up their abandoned mines would have carte

blanche to spend it.

It makes no sense “to keep paying for mines that are

already cleaned up,” Schatz said. Instead, “you could use that

money for something government did effectively, or simply spend

less and let taxpayers keep all that money,” he said. “They

didn’t need to do this; there’s no emergency. There’s no

excuse.”

Unrelated Bill

Good-government advocates say the change shouldn’t have

quietly caught a ride on the unrelated highway bill. It’s a

reversal of the scenario that played out three years ago, when

an annual payment cap was first imposed by a provision in the

2012 transportation bill.

“It’s kind of ironic that what they’re undoing in the

transportation bill is what they did in the transportation bill

three years ago,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers

for Common Sense in Washington. “It wasn’t good policy to do it

that way then and it’s not good policy now.”

Wyoming gets the biggest jackpot because it is the nation’s

No. 1 coal producer, responsible for about 40 percent of U.S.

production. But West Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois and other

states also get payouts from the fund tied to the coal

production within their borders. The fund also provides money to

states with abandoned mines in need of cleanup — even those

with scant to no coal production today.

Mandatory Payments

The Obama administration has implored Congress to halt the

mandatory payments to Louisiana, Montana, Texas and Wyoming

because they have already completed major coal reclamation

projects. Congress responded in 2012 by capping the annual

payouts to states the past two years. Only Wyoming hit the

limit.

Wyoming’s Congressional delegation has pushed for the

elimination of the cap, though it hasn’t taken credit for the

language in the highway bill. Spokesmen for Senator John

Barrasso and his fellow Republicans from Wyoming, Senator Mike

Enzi and Representative Cynthia Lummis, didn’t respond to

requests for comment. A spokesman for the National Mining

Association also didn’t respond.

Environmentalists said boosting payments to coal-producing

states — with no strings attached on the final spending —

would encourage coal production at a time when concerns about

climate change should be tamping down the activity.

“We’re working to keep coal in the ground, and if there is

this huge fund to reclaim areas that have been damaged by

mining, it is an incentive for states to keep mining it,” said

Athan Manuel, director of lands protection for the Sierra Club,

an environmental group.

Arch Coal, Peabody Energy, Rio Tinto and other companies

pulled 387.9 million short tons of coal out of Wyoming in 2013,

according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The No.

2 producer was West Virginia, with 115.9 million short tons,

followed by Kentucky, Illinois and Pennsylvania.

To contact the reporter on this story:

Jennifer A. Dlouhy in Washington at jdlouhy1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:

Jon Morgan at jmorgan97@bloomberg.net

Justin Blum

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