(Casper Star Tribune, September 17) – U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said this week he intends to draft legislation halting coal leasing on federal lands after the U.S. Bureau of Land Management rejected his call for a leasing moratorium.
Markey had urged BLM to suspend its leasing program while it considers reforms suggested by the Government Accountability Office last year.
But in an Aug. 14 letter released by the senator’s office this week, BLM Director Neil Korze rejected that plea.
“While the department intends to make necessary changes to improve the coal leasing program, we do not agree that our coal program should be suspended until these reforms are completed,” Kornze wrote.
Wyoming is the top coal producing state in the country, accounting for nearly 40 percent of America’s output. Much of that mining occurs on BLM-administered lands in the Powder River Basin.
In December, the GAO released a report calling the leasing program’s rules out of date. The bureau’s rules often varied from state to state and violated BLM’s own policies. A good part of the criticism was directed at BLM offices in other sates, but the Wyoming office did not escape ridicule.
BLM officials in the Cowboy State failed to account for the price of exports, a small but growing market, when determining the value of a lease, GAO said.
Markey led a similar investigation into the leasing program in the 1980s when he was a congressman. That inquiry found BLM undervalued leases by $100 million.
The current investigation did not provide an estimate for undervalued leases. A separate report by the Interior Department’s inspector general said parcels were undervalued by $60 million. Markey has said a staff review of a private GAO report provided to his office put that figure at $200 million.
“This response from the Interior Department to the significant flaws that have been identified in the coal leasing program by the GAO does not adequately assure American taxpayers that this program will be reformed and that they will be protected,” Markey said.
He said he would draft a bill to halt the program until the GAO reforms are implemented as a means of protecting taxpayers against below market leases.
Wyoming’s Republican Senate delegation blasted back, saying Markey’s efforts were not aimed at improving the program, but killing the coal industry.
“It is ironic that anti-coal lawmakers complain about the federal government not getting enough revenue from coal while they work to end coal production and thus completely end any coal revenue the federal government gets,” said U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi. “Their efforts and complaints are political, not practical.”
A spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. John Barrasso said closing the coal leasing program would destroy jobs and raise energy costs.
“If the liberal Senator from Massachusetts really wants to stand up for American taxpayers, he’ll support Senator Barrasso’s efforts to open up more access for American coal on international markets, especially in Asia,” Laura Mengelkamp said.
The debate over the program comes at a time when the Wyoming BLM office has halted leasing due to weak coal prices.
Beverly Gorney, a spokeswoman for the BLM Wyoming office, said there is no time table for when leasing might resume.
“Since coal production has decreased, the coal industry has not sought additional reserves,” she wrote in an email.
Most national attention has recently been focused on Colorado, where a federal judge recently blocked BLM from leasing 1,700 acres to Arch Coal for the expansion of its West Elk mine. The judge said BLM failed to account for climate change in its leasing decision.