The Interior Department yesterday proposed a new program to resume leasing federal coal lands in the West, but under strict rules to prevent the mining of environmentally precious lands.
The plan, set out in a 700-page draft environmental statement, would end a seven-year moratorium on western coal leasing. Lawsuits by environmentalists and rachers had forced a halt to the leasing boom of the 1960s, when strip mining caused widespread destruction and unplanned development in the West.
The new policy would remove a significant obstacle to President Carter's policy to make coal the nation's primary energy source. The president says he wants to reduce the nation's dependence on expensive foreign oil, but coal production has been plagued with leasing, transportation and airpollution problems.
"The Carter administration is ending the management paralysis which for years made it impossible to rely on federal coal as a dependable energy supply," Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andurs said in a news conference yesterday. He said leasing could resume by mid-1980.
The new program represents a significant departure from the way leasing was conducted under the Nixon and Ford administrations. Then, coal companies were allowed to select the lands they wanted to lease, and environmental analysis - which was later ruled inadequate by the courts - took place afterward.
Under the Andrus proposal, federal land use planners would first eliminate any environmentally unsuitable lands, such as agricultural areas, potential wildreness preserves and important wildlife grounds. Coal companies then could express preferences for specific leases in the remaining acreage.
The plan also outlines rules for extensive cooperation with state planners. It requires that a need for the coal must be demonstrated before it is leased, thus preventing the speculative leasing that occured in the 1960s while production was declining.
Louise Dunlap of the Environmental Policy Center, one of the leaders of the opposition to previous leasing, hailed the plan as a "dramatically new and different process which makes it possible for various interest groups to be heard." However, she added that environmentalists would not necessarily agree with the ultimate decisions on which lands are to be leased.
National Coal Association President Carl Bagge said the plan makes him apprehensive: "It doesn't involve the coal industry early enough. We come in at the tail end of the process." NCA representative Ray Peck, who headed the coal program at Interior under the Ford administration, said early field tests have indicated that federal land use planners could eliminate 89 percent of Montana and entire regions in Utah from Leasing.
Interior officials said that very few new leases would be needed to meet the administration's coal production goals for 1985. Somewhat more would be needed to meet 1990 goals. Roughly 17 billion to 19 billion tons of coal are already under lease, but not in production.
Andrus called the new program a milestone in the effort to relieve the nation's energy crisis. "Coal has been a resource rollercoaster in modern times," he said. "It once was the primary fuel of America. Then it faded - partially because of its environmental liabilities. but mostly because we enjoyed for several decades the illusion that oil and gas supplies were infinite. Now we know better."
Most of the coal production potential is in the West, where the federal government owns 60 percent of the reserves, Andrus said. Without proper planning, a projected increase of 20 percent in western production would be impossible.
Despite the desire to increase western production, however, Andrus said he supported the strict air pollution requirements proposed for power plants by the Environmental Protection Agency. The Energy Department has objected to EPA's proposals, claiming that low-sulfur western coal should be subjected to less stringent requirements than dirtier eastern coal.