• Environmental group describes five producers’ spending
  • U.S. to hold hearing on future of coal-leasing program

Five coal-mining companies spent $95 million to lobby U.S. lawmakers and more than half a billion dollars on salaries for top executives in the decade before they filed for bankruptcy, according to a report by an environmental group.

At the same time, the companies -- Walter Energy Inc., Patriot Coal Corp., Alpha Natural Resources Inc., Arch Coal Inc. and Peabody Energy Corp. -- benefited from a federal program that leases land for coal production at a discount. The environmental group, the Western Values Project, said in a report to be released Tuesday that the companies’ “excessive” spending shows the leases helped lobbyists and executives, not the public.

The five companies filed for bankruptcy over the past 13 months after natural gas became cheaper than coal and regulatory costs increased. Coal supplied 24.6 percent of U.S. electricity in April, compared to nearly 50 percent a decade ago.

The report was released ahead of a Tuesday public meeting in Pittsburgh on the future of the federal coal-leasing program. The Western Values group is pressing regulators to overhaul the program by making transactions more transparent and raising costs to better match the value of coal extracted from private land.

Five earlier public meetings, designed to help the Obama administration decide how to revamp the program to lease public land for coal production, focused on the environmental costs of burning the fossil fuel and the potential economic fallout for companies and communities whose livelihoods are tethered to it.

‘Outdated’ Rules

Federal coal is cheaper than supplies mined from private land, with companies paying the U.S. government an average of $1.70 per ton (or roughly 4.9 percent of its value) from 2008 to 2012, according to a White House analysis.

"Our current rules are outdated, and they amount to a large taxpayer investment in coal CEOs, instead of the coal communities that need the investments," said Chris Saeger, executive director of the Western Values Project, based in Colorado and Montana. "Why should taxpayers be on the hook for coal companies’ mismanagement, CEOs’ excessive compensation and bonuses, and coal companies’ Washington lobbyists?"

Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, said the notion the companies spent too much on lobbying is "absurd."

"It would be far closer to the truth to say that, because of poor market conditions, they didn’t spend enough to oppose the relentless anti-coal regulations they faced from this administration," Popovich said by e-mail. "The leadership of these companies faced unprecedented challenges: headwinds from marketplace competition, falling global demand and at the same time an administration that seeks their destruction."

Coal company bankruptcies are revealing more detail about the industry’s spending to influence policymakers and the public as new environmental regulations made it more expensive to burn the fuel. For instance, newly released documents from Peabody’s $10.1 billion bankruptcy, filed in April, show the company has given money to scientists skeptical of climate change, a group fighting state environmental regulations, and Washington public relations specialist Rick Berman.

The entire coal mining industry disclosed $8.4 million in lobbying last year, putting it well below the top 20 biggest spending sectors, each with about $58.8 million, according to an analysis by the not-for-profit Center for Responsive Politics.
Executives at Patriot Coal, Alpha Natural Resources, Arch Coal and Peabody took home $654.3 million, according to filings with the Securities Exchange Commission. That includes $10.2 million in salary, bonuses, stock and other compensation collected by former Peabody chief executive Greg Boyce in 2015 after a voluntary 10 percent reduction in his base salary that brought it to $956,547.

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