Lawmakers mull doing away with preferential coal leases

E&E News
By Manuel Quinones
September 18, 2014

House lawmakers are moving forward with legislation to phase out what they call outdated federal coal mining leases, a step that would also benefit the Navajo Nation.

Reps. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) and Cynthia Lummis' (R-Wyo.) H.R. 5176 would allow companies holding so-called preferential right coal leases to exchange them for bidding rights somewhere else.

The Interior Department issued the noncompetitive leases as a way to encourage the exploration for coal in areas where economically recoverable deposits were not known to exist. But lawmakers scrapped the program in the 1970s.

Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee ranking member Rush Holt (D-N.J.) said the handful of remaining leases are "vestiges of the bygone method of coal leasing, and it's time we do away with them."

The issue is of particular importance now because Holt says the leases "are in a terrible area for coal mining." Plus the Navajo Nation has picked some of the tracts as part of a 1970s law to settle land issues between the Navajo and Hopi tribes.

Navajo Nation Council Del. Walter Phelps said during a hearing yesterday that the legislation would "help to resolve a four-decade-old federal obligation to the Navajo Nation."

Phelps said federal law didn't provide a mechanism for the Navajo to pick different tracts of land to be held in trust by the federal government.

Michael Nedd, assistant chief for energy, minerals and realty management at the Bureau of Land Management, said the agency has been trying to find a resolution to the dispute. The legislation, he said, would provide the authority.

Also up for discussion yesterday was H.R. 5066 by Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Mich.) to extend the National Geological and Geophysical Data Preservation Program.

Lawmakers and natural resource industry leaders call it imperative for lawmakers to extend the already-expired program, which helps save data and materials like old rock samples.

Theodore Pagano, Michigan Potash Company LLC general manager, spoke about finding a high-quality potash deposit by analyzing old government-held samples.

"Our story is a unique and compelling one that really epitomizes the purpose of the [legislation]," said Pagano, lamenting the increased U.S. dependence on international markets for potash.

Separately yesterday, subpanel Chairman Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) recognized Holt leaving Congress at the end of the current session. "You will be missed, Rep. Holt," Lamborn said.

Holt, who often disagrees with the GOP majority on natural resource issues, responded, "I am still on the job." But Lamborn said yesterday's hearing may be the last of the Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee this session.