Coal consolidation

 

A just-announced federal plan to merge the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement into the much-larger Bureau of Land Management is drawing mixed reactions. Some environmental groups wonder if changing the agency's bureaucratic home will end its long-running coziness with industry. Yet critics of the proposal view it as one more attempt from the Obama administration to kill the coal industry.

Some stats on the two government agencies show their key differences:

OSM (also called OSMRE):

  • mostly oversees state programs that regulate coal mining and reclamation
  • primarily regulates private land in Eastern states
  • employs 525, has a $160 million budget

BLM:

  • oversees coal leasing and hardrock mining, oil and gas, renewable energy, grazing, recreation, conservation and many other issues
  • manages public land in mostly Western states
  • employs 10,000, has a $1.1 billion budget

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a press release that the merging of administration and mine reclamation functions will make OSM stronger: "The initiative is part of the Department’s ongoing efforts to make government work better by increasing efficiencies, building upon existing strengths, and getting the most out of limited resources."

The mining industry hopes reorganization will make permitting and oversight more streamlined – according to Carol Raulston, spokeswoman of the National Mining Association, it currently it takes seven to 10 years to permit a new coal mine. But the industry is also wary that the change increases uncertainty about the role of coal in national energy supply. It's been fighting a rule proposed by OSM to protect streams from the effects of mountaintop removal mining.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska and the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, questioned the legality of the merger:

OSM was specifically established as a separate entity, reporting directly to the Interior Secretary, to protect its independence as a regulatory body. I want to make sure that’s protected. The proposed merger of BLM – the entity responsible for leasing – and OSM – the regulatory body – seems to fly in the face of the arguments DOI used to support establishing the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement as an independent entity to regulate offshore oil development, separate from BOEMRE, which handles offshore leasing.”

Environmentalists complain that the tiny agency has proven ineffective at regulating the industry and has served as "a coal industry lapdog," according to a statement from Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel for Earthjustice. Many Democratic representatives agree, including Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass. The agency's stated mission is “to protect society and the environment from the adverse effects of surface coal mining operations," but its failings have led to a huge increase in destructive mountaintop removal (MTR) mining, Markey says. From the Natural Resources Committee website:

In (a late September) letter, Rep. Markey notes that the OSM has failed to establish national standards to protect offsite areas from the impacts of MTR mining despite a clear statutory mandate to do so.  Because of the large scale impacts of MTR mining, the air quality of neighboring areas are often impacted by the spread of coal dust, which can cause serious respiratory ailments.  MTR mining can cause increased levels of selenium, other heavy metals, salinity, and suspended solids in nearby streams.  This pollution often spreads downstream, degrading water quality and threatening drinking water supplies.

The letter also queries OSM on the utilization of coal combustion waste to fill mine-shafts. Highly toxic coal combustion waste represents the second largest industrial waste stream in the United States, and dumping this waste into mine-shafts can create conditions that allow for contamination of drinking water. Despite this potential threat, the OSM has not revised its water-monitoring regime for coal combustion waste since 1983.

Highly-respected coal country journalist Ken Ward Jr. also reports that the move is being met with skepticism.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., the last member of Congress who was on the House Natural Resources Committee when OSM was created in 1977, said the agency "provides a sounding board for Appalachian residents to express their concerns to the federal government. I am concerned that OSM will be diluted, or denuded, and will not serve as the same repository of coalfield residents' concerns," Rahall said during a telephone interview Wednesday evening. He called the move "rather bizarre."

Ward sums up the issue thus:

It’s too soon to say where this Obama proposal for OSMRE is headed, whether it could really happen. It’s not clear the merger makes much sense at all.
But one thing is sure — by not doing its job in the first place, OSMRE has probably lost what could have been its biggest backers in trying to save it from a merger. And by not pushing OSMRE to stand up more firmly for coalfield residents, lawmakers who now question the Obama proposal have a hard sell in proving that a merger takes away a serious industry watchdog.

Jodi Peterson is the managing editor of High Country News.

High Country News Classifieds