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Four-decade-old US coal advisory council hours may be numbered

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Four-decade-old US coal advisory council hours may be numbered

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Peabody Energy's North Antelope Rochelle mine in the Powder River Basin is among the largest coal mines in the U.S. and supplies multiple U.S. power plants with thermal coal.
Source: S&P Global Market Intelligence

A nearly 40-year-old coal advisory council to the U.S. federal government will cease to exist as of Nov. 20 if the Department of Energy does not take action — and the agency has been silent on the body's fate.

Congressional Republicans sounded the alarm on the potential loss of the charter with a letter in October proclaiming the need to preserve the volunteer group. The council, founded in 1984, advises the Secretary of Energy on federal policies that affect coal production, marketing and use.

Environmental groups have long criticized the council, whose members are largely representatives from coal miners and associated sectors, for favoring the industry. For President Joe Biden, fresh off of international climate talks in Scotland, the lapsing of the National Coal Council's charter may be an opportunity to signal to climate hawks his desire to evict coal, a fuel with high greenhouse gas emissions, from the U.S. power system.

The DOE declined to comment.

Randall Atkins, the CEO of metallurgical coal producer Ramaco Resources Inc. and Ramaco Carbon LLC, currently serves as the NCC chairman. Atkins confirmed there was a lack of clarity around the renewal of the charter via email.

"Needless to say, as NCC chairman I am very supportive of the good work which the NCC has done over the years and hopefully will continue to do," Atkins wrote.

Congressional Republicans concerned

A group of 27 lawmakers, including Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.; Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo; Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo.; and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, wrote a letter Oct. 12 calling on the DOE to renew the charter based on an "understanding" that the DOE's Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management might not recharter the NCC. The letter said that developing coal and carbon management technologies is crucial to electrifying developing economies while meeting global climate targets.

"Denying newly mined coal a position in the domestic energy and manufacturing mix will come at a serious cost, both here at home and around the world," the letter states. "A politically driven rejection of understanding the benefits of newly mined coal and carbon research today [would] kill thousands of jobs and innovation."

Work of the organization

The NCC has 120 to 150 members, reports to the Secretary of Energy and has a designated federal officer who helps coordinate the organization. Many of the NCC's members are directly involved in mining, processing or transporting coal, and its roster includes representatives of some of the largest coal mining companies in the U.S.

The NCC's primary function has been to generate research reports on coal issues. Recent subjects have included recommendations for boosting the export of U.S. coal and promoting carbon capture and storage technology.

During the Trump administration, the group produced a report on coal power that called on officials to offer taxpayer support to research and development programs for coal-based technology.

"We start with the premise that coal is essential to the nation," NCC CEO Janet Gellici said during a July 2020 meeting in which members approved the report. Gellici referred comment to Atkins.

During the Obama administration, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz also tapped the NCC for advice on coal policy. For example, NCC prepared a report on opportunities for using carbon dioxide captured from coal plants that Moniz requested would be completed ahead of the Paris climate negotiations. That report called for "policy parity" to "level the playing field" for carbon capture and storage technologies.

Group in legal hot water

When the NCC's charter was last renewed in 2019, a Federal Register notice described the council members as having "well-balanced representation from all sections of the country, all segments of the coal industry, including large and small companies, and commercial and residential consumers." It also said the membership is to be diverse and incorporate interests outside the coal industry, including those representing the environment, labor, research and academic community, though some critics of the organization say there is a lack of balance.

But green groups suggest the NCC and the nonprofit that supports it, National Coal Council Inc., is essentially a trade association.

"They're the same people. They go to the same meetings. They have the same staff," said Shannon Anderson, a staff attorney and organizer with environmental group Powder River Basin Resource Council. "So it just seems to be a very strange way to operate an advisory committee for the DOE."

At the request of then-Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette in 2020, the NCC produced a report about creating carbon fiber and other products from coal that was released the next year. Meanwhile, Anderson noted, Ramaco Carbon has received several multi-million dollar awards from the DOE to do exactly that work.

In a September letter to current Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, the Western Organization of Resource Councils, or WORC, cited several past instances it claims reflect a pro-coal bias among members of the NCC.

"The membership and funding structure of the NCC has translated into open efforts by this federal advisory committee to engage in policy advocacy, rather than simply rendering vetted advice to the DOE," the letter stated. "For example, the council appears to believe that it has a single-focus policy mission of propping up the coal industry."

WORC filed a lawsuit with the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana in 2020 alleging that between 2017 and 2020 the NCC mostly worked out of the public's view and failed to comply with regulations on transparency and releasing council materials. It argued that the full membership meets publicly but essentially rubber stamps reports created by subcommittees that work in private. It also claimed that NCC Inc. is a private trade association that uses "the government's imprimatur to undertake its work, lend credibility to its recommendations and fundraise for itself," to the detriment of those harmed by the extraction and use of coal.

The DOE denied the claims, but the court allowed the case to proceed. The DOE's response to the motion for summary judgment is due Nov. 24.