In an unusual version of sleuth and countersleuth, the Interior Department has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the General Accounting Office, seeking information on the congressional watchdog agency's investigation into a coal-lease episode involving the Atlantic Richfield Co.
The request, filed by J. Steven Griles, assistant secretary for land and minerals management, asks for "all information regarding the amount of time and money" the GAO spent looking into a proposed lease suspension that critics contend would have given ARCO a reprieve on returning some Colorado leases that did not meet federal production requirements.
The GAO investigated the situation at the request of Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.), chairman of the House Government Operations subcommittee on environment, energy and natural resources. Synar is a frequent user of the GAO's services, and the target is most often the Interior Department.
An aide to Griles said it was "Steve's view that a lot of time and money was spent to do an investigation when we don't know if they found anything or even intend to publish a report. It is a question of judicious use of taxpayer money."
Synar responded yesterday that his previous GAO requests had turned up numerous examples of questionable financial practices at Interior, ranging from uncollected fines at the Office of Surface Mining and uncollected royalties on Indian oil resources to below-market grazing fees on public land and disposal of toxic waste on federal property.
"Almost every one of these has been under Steve Griles' watch," Synar said. "I think it would be a more efficient use of money if he spent it on solving these problems instead of trying to find out what GAO spent on an investigation."
At issue was an October 1986 memorandum from the Bureau of Land Management's Colorado state director, outlining a proposal to divide three coal leases held by the West Elk Coal Co., an ARCO subsidiary, into new leases and suspend some "in the interests of conservation."
At the time, ARCO was facing a December 1986 deadline by which it either had to return coal leases that were not producing in commercial quantities or become ineligible to bid on additional federal mineral leases. "Commercial quantities," by Interior definition, meant 1 percent a year of recoverable coal under lease.
ARCO argued that it couldn't meet that requirement, because the lower seams of coal in its leased land, while defined as "recoverable," could not be mined economically.
The BLM proposal, in essence, would have allowed ARCO to meet the production requirements by issuing separate leases for the upper and lower seams. The lower-seam leases would then be suspended under the conservation provision, a rarely used section of federal leasing law. Interior's solicitor had earlier decided that owners of leases suspended for conservation reasons did not lose the right to bid on other federal mineral leases.
The GAO had not published the results of its investigation at the time of Griles' Sept. 22 FOIA request. The report was published Sept. 30, and was released by Synar yesterday.
The 15-page report said that the BLM was prepared to approve ARCO's application for new leases and lease suspensions, but no application was submitted. Instead, the company is pursuing an administrative effort to get BLM to reduce the amount of coal it considers "recoverable."
The report also cleared up some lingering questions about where the proposal came from in the first place. The 1986 BLM memorandum suggested it came from ARCO, but the GAO report said company lawyers could not recall who originated the idea.
"We were informed by the staff assistant to Interior's assistant secretary for land and minerals management that the idea for the proposal originated within his office," the GAO said.
A GAO spokeswoman said the agency had not yet seen Griles' FOIA request, another mystery that quickly responded to some sleuthing. "He sent it to the wrong address," she said. "It's probably on its way back to him."