The Federal Coal Leasing Amendments Act created a land use planning process designed to ensure that coal leasing undergoes at least four stages of evaluation – an evaluation that has been reduced dramatically by decertification of the major coal producing regions. The evaluation is supposed to include these steps (abridged here):
(1) BLM estimates coal development potential for the surface management agency. If available information indicates development potential for an area, the area may be included in land use planning for evaluation for coal leasing.
(2) BLM or the surface management agency uses unsuitability criteria and procedures established by FCLAA to review federal lands to assess where there are areas unsuitable for all or certain stipulated methods of mining.
(3) Multiple land use decisions are made which may eliminate additional coal deposits from further consideration for leasing to protect other resource values and land uses that are locally, regionally or nationally important or unique and that are not included in the unsuitability criteria. There is particular emphasis on protecting:
- Air and water quality;
- Wetlands, riparian areas and sole-source aquifers;
- Federal lands which, if leased, would adversely impact units of the National Park System, the National Wildlife Refuge System, the National System of Trails, and the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
(4)(i) While preparing a comprehensive land use plan or land use analysis, BLM consults with affected surface owners including those whose lands overlie coal deposits, to determine preference for or against mining by other than underground mining techniques.
Following this process and development of a final land use or resource management plan, coal lease activity planning begins. A federal-state advisory group called a Regional Coal Team (RCT) guides the process.
Upon receipt of recommendations by BLM and RCT as to appropriate coal leasing levels, the Secretary of the Interior commences a review in consultation with the Secretary of Energy, Attorney General, and affected Indian tribes, based on a list of statutory considerations, with public participation.
When the Secretary has determined leasing levels, they “become the basis for the proposed action for study in the regional coal lease sale environmental impact statement”, which is also considered in the Secretary’s “final decision on which coal lease tracts, if any, within a region to offer for sale”.
This is the process that evaporated with decertification of the federal coal production regions.
The practical result of all this is that the Regional Coal Team for the former Powder River coal production region seems to have gotten away with a major power grab. Its voting members are:
- the BLM State Director, Wyoming;
- BLM State Director, Montana;
- BLM Deputy State Director, Minerals and Lands, Wyoming;
- the Governor of Wyoming; and
- the Governor of Montana.
Non-voting members are:
- Office of Surface Mining (OSM),Western Region, Chief, Northwest Branch
- US Forest Service, Medicine Bow National Forest, Land and Minerals Program Manager, Laramie, WY
- National Park Service Superintendent, Devils Tower National Monument
- BLM Wyoming Coal Program Coordinator, Cheyenne, WY
- BLM Montana Coal Program Coordinator, Billings, MT
- U.S. Geological Survey, Energy Resources Program Office, Washington, D.C.
- Bureau of Indian Affairs, Rocky Mountain Regional Office, Chief, Branch of Environmental Services, Billings, MT
- National Park Service BLM-NPS Liaison Officer, Cheyenne, WY
- Director, City of Gillette, WY
- Chairman, Commissioners, Big Horn County, MT
- Chairman, Commissioners, Powder River County, MT
- Chairman, Commissioners, Rosebud County, MT
- Chairman, Commissioners, Campbell County , WY
- Advisory Attorney, Office of the Regional Solicitor, Rocky Mountain Region, Denver, CO
- Bureau of Land Management Chief, WO (320) Solids Group
- U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Branch Chief, Region 6, Cheyenne, WY
- U.S. Forest Service, Deputy District Ranger, Douglas District, Douglas, WY
- BLM Mining Engineer, WO (320)
- Chairman, Crow Tribal Council
- President, Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council
Conservation groups are not on this list.
The results of RCT practices in terms of coal company profitability in PRB operations speak for themselves. In one recent and stunning example, Peabody’s quarterly profit for third quarter 2008 was $155 million, the best in the company’s 125 year history, as the rest of the U.S. economy was collapsing.