The Reagan administration yesterday announced "a total revision of the federal coal leasing program," proposing to relax environmental restraints, speed the leasing process and expand industry's role in determining which lands get mined when.
The proposed regulatory rewrite, which took up 50 pages of the Federal Register with more to come, would accelerate the leasing of public lands to boost coal production and reduce U.S. dependence on oil imports. The leasing program has been stalled for legal reasons since 1975, with one new lease issued since then.
Environmental groups oppose the administration plan, arguing that coal demand is very low now and that more industry authority over leasing will only preclude the use of the land for other purposes, rather than increase production. State officials are also concerned that the new approach would increase industry control over development at the expense of state goals.
The key features of the plan, which involves the Department of Energy as well as Interior, would give some mining companies up to 20 more years to mine land they leased in the 1960s and early 1970s. The program also would increase the size of lease offerings, allowing industry to pick and choose among them, ending federal efforts to set particular levels of coal production.
Previously the government has set target regional production levels to meet anticipated utility and industrial needs. This appeared to be "anticompetitive and inflationary," the announcement said.
Now, after consulting with the states, Indian tribes and the DOE as before, Interior would set only "broadly defined ranges" of production goals. Environmental groups object, saying that this would reduce state and local control over development.
"They'll have to respond to the industry agenda rather than to one based on rational planning," said David Albersworth of the Western Organization of Resource Councils, a coalition representing 2,500 western family farmers and ranchers.
The DOE, in companion rule changes yet to be announced, is expected to propose giving coal companies with pre-1976 leases an extension on their 1986 deadline for producing some coal. Depending on when the lease was issued, the firm could have until 2006 to do any work before losing the lease.
Under Interior's proposal, the process to determine whether land is unsuitable for mining because of environmental risks, natural beauty or other reasons would not take place until the final mining license application review period. Now the procedure occurs before the lease is issued, the first stage of the process.
"We haven't had enough data to do it properly in the early phases," an Interior spokesman said.
The criteria for finding land unsuitable for mining also would be revised, combining several wildlife evaluation sections into one and making it clear that Interior may not refuse to lease lands just because they may be under consideration to become wilderness areas.
Leasing would be allowed in some environmentally sensitive areas before environmental impact statements are completed, but no mining would be permitted without them.
Under the proposal, information would be gathered on coal resources under all public lands, whether or not anyone has expressed interest in leasing a particular parcel. The requirement that a reclamation plan be drawn up within three years of leasing would be dropped in favor of requiring one only when mining is about to start.
Interior would also have authority to cut a company's royalty payments to less than 5 percent of the value of the coal if it sees fit. Royalties are generally set at about 12 percent.
The regulations will be open for public comment for 60 days.