A House Appropriations subcommittee voted yesterday to bar Interior Secretary James G. Watt from leasing any more government coal reserves this year, in a bipartisan show of concern over the agency's embattled coal program.
The vote follows by one week the release of an eight-month investigation by the Appropriations staff that accused Watt and his aides of mismanaging coal resources by "flooding the market" with government reserves during an energy glut, accepting "fire-sale prices" from the coal industry and shortchanging the taxpayers.
The panel's action came on a proposed amendment to Interior's 1983 budget that would force the agency to cancel plans to sell the rights to about 1 billion tons of coal in North Dakota and Montana later this year. That sale is a key element of Watt's program to lease up to 15 billion tons of coal by 1985, part of his policy of accelerating energy development on public lands. The Carter administration had proposed to lease 1.7 billion tons in four years.
"We're not satisfied with the way the program has been handled," said Rep. Sidney R. Yates (D-Ill.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees Interior's budget. "Under the conditions that exist in today's economy, we don't think there ought to be any attempt at wholesale leasing, which is Secretary Watt's approach. We don't see that the government is getting adequate reimbursement."
Yates said he may also push for an amendment to ban coal leasing in Watt's 1984 budget. If passed, it would freeze the entire coal program.
The proposed 1983 amendment passed on a voice vote, with four Republicans and four Democrats present. Only Rep. Tom Loeffler (R-Tex.) expressed reservations, saying he thought the panel had not heard Interior's full defense, but he did not vote against the amendment. Interior officials are to testify before the subcommittee on the coal program next week.
The proposed ban, which goes to the full Appropriations Committee on May 18, is expected to pass the House easily, but likely will meet strong Senate resistance, led by Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman James McClure (R-Idaho), a prominent advocate of Watt's leasing policies. The same amendment died in the Senate last year by one vote, with McClure heading the opposition.
Assistant Interior Secretary Garrey Carruthers, who directs the coal leasing program, denounced the subcommittee's move as "a regrettable mistake." He said, "Freezing our coal leasing program when it has barely begun to move forward means higher prices, less competition, greater dependence on insecure foreign energy sources and a step backward for environmental protection . . . . A moratorium now would hamper growth in the economy and more jobs for Americans."
Critics of Watt's coal policies have argued that the coal industry already owns the rights to enough coal to meet the nation's energy needs until the end of the 21st century. They contend that the government cannot receive a fair market value for its resources, as required by law, under these circumstances.
The vote came one month after Watt said on national television that "we have the full support of the Congress and all of the governors on coal leasing."