An array of New Mexico officials, environmentalists, scientists and others today urged the Interior Department to call off plans to lease roughly 3 billion tons of coal in northern New Mexico.
Selling now, they argued, would cost the state and federal governments millions of dollars while forcing the relocation of Navajos and threatening archeological and geological treasures.
Interior Secretary James G. Watt has said that he intends to continue leasing coal on western lands, despite recent congressional accusations that he has approved leases at "fire-sale" prices.
Watt has often said that his policies are supported in the West, but that assertion came back to haunt him today at a session that largely turned into a forum of anti-Watt rhetoric from a string of New Mexicans.
At a day-long hearing here by two House Interior subcommittees, critics of coal leasing in New Mexico supported legislation in Congress that would delay further leasing for at least one year or until the department revises its leasing procedures.
But energy company spokesmen and some citizens said that Interior should stick to its leasing schedule for the sake of New Mexico's depressed economy.
Gov. Toney Anaya (D) called the proposed schedule for the San Juan Basin of northwestern New Mexico part of "Watt's folly." He said that his state could lose $48 million to $79.5 million if the leases are offered in today's depressed coal markets.
Last month, the General Accounting Office charged that Interior sold coal development rights in the Powder River Basin along the Montana-Wyoming border for $100 million less that they were worth.
Attacking Watt today, Anaya said, "He has not dealt with governors of coal-producing states in good faith. He has not dealt with Native Americans in good faith. He has not dealt with environmentalists in good faith. And, yes, he has not even dealt with the coal industry--so far the only beneficiaries of his coal leasing program--in good faith."
The roughly 3 billion tons of coal involved in the fight here are scheduled to be leased in two packages later this year. About 800 million to 900 million tons are supposed to be offered under competitive leases, making that sale about the size of Powder River Basin's. Charles W. Luscher, New Mexico director of the Bureau of Land Management, said that he doubts that many of the competitive leases will draw more than one bidder.
In addition, about 2.2 billion tons are scheduled to be made available under non-competitive leases that have been held by mining companies for some years.
Environmentalists fear that the leases would jeopardize their efforts to have three areas of northern New Mexico designated as wilderness areas. But Luscher said that even if the lease sales went ahead, no development will be allowed on potential wilderness areas until their fate is decided.
The region also contains potentially important archeological sites and geological evidence of evolution from the age of reptiles to the rise of mammals.
The coal leasing plans would force more than 100 Navajo families to relocate. A Navajo spokesman called the leasing "very seriously wrong."
Spokesmen for mining companies and the Public Service Co. of New Mexico argued in favor of the lease sale, although one of them noted that he felt like "a pair of brown shoes in a sea of tuxedos."
The energy company officials said that it is possible both to mine coal and protect the environment in the region and argued that delays could prevent the coal there from ever being developed.