- Associated Press - Thursday, July 9, 2015

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - Federal officials on Thursday announced a series of public meetings this summer on the U.S. government’s coal program, following criticism that corporations have profited off publicly-owned reserves of the fuel at the expense of taxpayers.

The Interior Department’s solicitation for the public to weigh in comes as coal companies and their allies in Congress have tried to thwart the Obama administration’s initial attempts to change longstanding industry practices.

That includes recent legislation from Montana U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke that would block an Interior Department proposal to overhaul coal royalty payments. Under rules in place since the 1980s, companies can sell coal to affiliates and pay royalties to the government on that price, then turn around and sell the coal for more overseas.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a Thursday statement that it was time for “an honest and open conversation about modernizing the federal government’s coal program.”

Coal companies have argued that the current system is fair.

Also under scrutiny are coal lease sales. A probe last year by the U.S. Department of Interior Inspector General found federal officials in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico accepted below-market bids for coal leases or sold the fuel without full appraisals.

The public meetings are planned for July 29 in Washington, D.C.; Aug. 11 in Billings, Montana; Aug. 13 in Gillette, Wyoming; Aug. 18 in Denver, Colorado; and Aug. 20 in Farmington, New Mexico.

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