The Obama administration moved toward changing how companies pay to mine coal on federal land Thursday by announcing a series of "listening sessions" in four Western states and Washington.

The Interior Department move comes after it proposed a rule in January that would change how federal coal royalties are calculated. It also has signaled it might raise the 12.5 percent royalty rate assessed on federal coal. The department is investigating claims that companies circumvent royalty payments by selling federal coal at the mine rate to intermediaries they own, which in turn sell the coal, often to Asia, at a higher rate to collect a windfall.

The public hearings are expected to reach beyond those issues by addressing the royalty rate itself and how Interior's Bureau of Land Management offers leases to companies following a 2013 internal watchdog report that found many plots were offered to just one bidder, fetching below market value.

"I have heard many concerns about how the federal government leases coal, the amount of royalty charged and whether taxpayers are getting a fair return from public resources. These listening sessions are an opportunity to better understand how taxpayers, stakeholders and local communities perceive the federal government's coal program today and how we can improve and strengthen it for future generations," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said.

Hearings will begin July 29 in Washington, followed by an Aug. 11 event in Billings, Mont., Aug. 13 in Gillette, Wyo., Aug. 18 in Golden, Colo., and Aug. 20 in Farmington, N.M.

The Bureau of Land Management manages 310 active coal leases across 475,000 acres in 10 states, accounting for about two-fifths of coal production. Nearly all of that comes from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming.

Environmental groups and Democrats have increasingly focused on federally managed fossil fuels as a way to choke the supply of greenhouse gas emissions that most scientists blame for climate change, though they also have called it a matter of taxpayer fairness.

"The American public should demand a full return on the federal resources that belong to them. Reforming this outdated, unbalanced program is increasingly necessary from a budget perspective, because taxpayers should not be subsidizing coal companies," Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, urged prospective attendees.

Mining companies have said they're not running afoul of the law, saying neither critics nor the federal government have pointed to any significant underpayments. They said adjusting how the rates are calculated would increase business costs for mining companies while dimming prospects for exporting to Asian markets, which the U.S. coal industry is increasingly turning toward as the domestic market shifts to natural gas because of tough environmental regulations and the falling price of natural gas.

Robert Dillon, a GOP spokesman for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said coal leasing and royalties are "not immediately on our radar." And Sen. John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming, home of the Powder River Basin, said he was wary the public hearings would be used to stack comments by environmental groups to support new regulations.

"If Interior officials are going to use this so-called 'listening tour' to try to justify even more actions that hurt people in coal country, they should cancel their trip," he said in an email. "If the Obama administration is truly concerned about receiving a greater return on federal coal, it should immediately withdraw EPA regulations which undermine demand for coal. The administration should also make it easier for America to export our coal to overseas markets, especially those in Asia."

Public comment for the proposed rule to change how royalties are calculated ended in May. The Obama administration also hinted in a semi-annual regulatory update to the White House Office of Management and Budget that it might begin a rule-making process to raise the royalty rate to align more closely with those paid by oil and gas companies.

While Interior won't have a problem finishing the royalty calculation rule, creating a separate rule on the actual rate would run up against the end of President Obama's tenure.

But the administration doesn't have to complete a new rule to charge companies a higher rate for the coal they mine, noted Matt Lee-Ashley, public lands director with the left-leaning think tank the Center for American Progress. He said the 12.5 percent rate is a "floor" and that Jewell could offer the next round of leases at a higher level if she chooses.

"They could also move ahead with reforms that wouldn't necessarily require rule-making," Lee-Ashley told the Washington Examiner. "It's just by practice that coal has been offered at 12.5 percent."

National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich said the trade group "trusts that the Department will conduct the 'honest and open discussion,'" but maintained that there was nothing illegal about companies paying the royalty rates at the mine price when selling to the logistics arms of their businesses that sell to other customers.

"[T]he implicit assumptions in the secretary's notice are concerning. The federal coal leasing program fairly values an important public resource that is sold at auction and generates substantial revenue to American taxpayers. Calls by environmental activists to replace the current program with costly new fees and royalties are misguided for many reasons," he said in an email.

While environmental groups and Democrats contend changing the royalty calculation policy and rates would result in increased revenues to states — those with federal mines collect half of royalty payments — the National Mining Association said it would depress output, reducing revenues and increasing electricity costs by raising the price of federally mined coal.

But critics say that the way royalties are executed amounts to an end around current regulations that they say has cost taxpayers $1 billion dollars in averted payments, according to a report by Headwaters Economics. Any increase in the cost of doing business is merely correcting inadequacies in the current system, they say.

"[Thursday's] decision opens a long-overdue dialogue about whether coal communities are getting their fair share from public lands. Coal, oil and natural gas provide critical revenues for both state and local taxpayers. But due to outdated policies, companies receive a sweetheart deal at the expense of those living on the front lines of coal extraction. We've seen growing evidence that Westerners are looking for leadership on this issue, which Secretary Jewell is providing," said Greg Zimmerman, policy director at Denver's Center for Western Priorities.