Coal Tattoo

What’s up with ‘bizarre’ Obama plan for OSMRE?

OK … now let me make this clear: When I first heard that the Obama administration and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar were going to merge the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement with the Bureau of Land Management, I asked my source to repeat what they said … I thought for sure I had a bad connection on my cell phone.

But no, there’s the story in today’s Gazette from my buddy Dr. Paul Nyden:

The Obama administration wants to merge the federal Office of Surface Mining, which enforces and oversees federal and state regulations on the coal industry, with another federal agency … Late Wednesday afternoon, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced he is currently evaluating the best way to integrate OSM with the federal Bureau of Land Management.

In a news release, Salazar explained the move this way:

We must always be looking for ways to make government work better, to build on our strengths, and to get the most out of the limited resources we have. OSM and the BLM have vital natural resource missions, tremendous public servants, and strong leaders who are helping us rethink how we better deliver services and how we can further strengthen our regulation, reclamation, and stewardship responsibilities. We will rely on the ideas and input of employees and many others at every step of the process, so that we ensure that an integration is successful and consistent with our authorities under the law.

There’s more about what the Interior Department is up to in this memorandum, this order, and this list of questions and answers.

Many questions to come to mind about all of this, but one thing is clear: The administration wasn’t ready to go public with this announcement, and was pushed into it by a story from Greenwire, which reported yesterday:

Rumors of an imminent announcement about the reorganization circulated among mining industry leaders and on Capitol Hill all day, and officials are reportedly vetting a draft order to accomplish the change. Interior Department spokesman Adam Fetcher is not commenting on the reports.

One source familiar with the deliberations cited cost savings and efficiency as reasons for the possible change, saying combining operations could cut down on administrative functions. Early critics of such a move say OSM and BLM have distinct functions.

And it’s also clear that our good friend Rep. Nick J. Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat who as a freshman congressman in 1977 served on the conference committee that wrote the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, is going to oppose this merger. As Dr. Nyden reported:

Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., the last member of Congress who was on the House Natural Resources Committee when OSM was created in 1977, said the agency “provides a sounding board for Appalachian residents to express their concerns to the federal government.

“I am concerned that OSM will be diluted, or denuded, and will not serve as the same repository of coalfield residents’ concerns,” Rahall said during a telephone interview Wednesday evening. He called the move “rather bizarre.”

Fair enough. And it seems likely that some coalfield citizen activists and environmental advocates — particularly those who have been around longer and have strong ties to the notion that OSMRE was set up by Congress to police the coal industry — will probably be uneasy with the Obama proposal, or oppose it outright.

At the same time, though, some environmental groups who are working on significant coal-related issues like mountaintop removal are going to have a hard time getting too exercised about a move against an independent OSMRE. CQ reported, for example:

Environmental lobbyists applauded Salazar’s announcement, arguing that the reorganization was long overdue. Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel for the group Earthjustice, said the mining agency “has been more of a coal industry lapdog than a watchdog, and that’s continued during this administration under Director [Joe] Pizarchik.”

A couple of things to come mind that might be worth thinking about regarding this whole issue:

— Under Pizarchik’s leadership, OSMRE has not necessarily appeared to know what it’s doing. Look at the total fiasco regarding efforts to rewrite the “buffer zone” rule. It’s one thing for the administration to take shots from Congress and the coalfield media for its efforts to crack down on mountaintop removal. But it’s quite another to get beat up when an agency bungles a rulemaking as much as OSMRE has bungled this one.

— Not for nothing, but is this whole proposal legal? Sure, the federal strip-mining law gives the Interior Department general powers and duties, but law also mandates creation of OSMRE and vests in that agency a bunch of powers, including some that Salazar appears to be wanting to shift to BLM, such as management of the Abandoned Mine Lands program.

— For many years, one problem for OSMRE has been that it’s not a bureau that Interior Department higher ups consider very important. This view was driven in large part because of Interior’s historic focus on western issues — public lands, tribal issues, etc. It’s hard to see how this merger would do anything except make that problem worse, at the expense of eastern mining issues like mountaintop removal and subsidence.

— In its efforts to take steps to reduce mining impacts, the Obama administration has clearly wanted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — not OSMRE — taking the lead. Obama cared so little about OSMRE that he put a relatively minor figure, Pizarchik, in charge — rather than picking a dynamic leader, like WVU’s Pat McGinley or the choice of Kentucky environmentalists, Joe Childers. Plenty of people in the environmental community told Obama advisers early on that they could — and should — fix OSMRE (see here and here). The administration just didn’t really listen.

But let’s go back to what my good friend Rep. Rahall had to say on this:

I am concerned that OSM will be diluted or denuded, and will not serve as the same repository of coalfield residents’ concerns.

Now, is there anybody who follows strip-mining issues who doesn’t believe that OSMRE isn’t already “diluted and denuded”? Anyone who thinks that OSMRE isn’t already not the watchdog for coalfield residents that Congress intended? Anybody really think OSMRE hasn’t both been cut and slashed nearly to death by administrations from both parties? Seriously … does anybody think OSMRE didn’t lose its way a very long time ago?

Don’t get me wrong … I know a lot of folks at OSMRE. Many of them are some of the most dedicated, hardworking and talented public servants I know. Many of them toil away investigating citizen complaints they know their bosses won’t let them do much about or writing reports about mining-related abuses they know they’ll not be allowed to stop. And for anybody who wants to blame this all on the early decisions about OSMRE made by the Reagan administration, or on coal-industry backed moves by George W. Bush, go back and read the landmark Public Employees for Responsibility report, “Empty Promise,” which rightly notes that it was the Clinton administration that made the biggest cuts in OSMRE budgets and staffing — and put in place policies that basically ordered field staff at the agency to back off tough oversight of state regulators.

And in fact, our friend Rep. Rahall knows full well about the ineffectiveness of OSMRE.  Not so long ago, when he was chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, citizen groups practically begged Rep. Rahall to do something to push OSMRE toward meetings its real duties to the coalfields. But that never happened, and Rep. Rahall is on the GOP bandwagon to block the Obama administration’s other efforts to reduce mining impacts.

It’s too soon to say where this Obama proposal for OSMRE is headed, whether it could really happen. It’s not clear the merger makes much sense at all.

But one thing is sure — by not doing its job in the first place, OSMRE has probably lost what could have been its biggest backers in trying to save it from a merger. And by not pushing OSMRE to stand up more firmly for coalfield residents, lawmakers who now question the Obama proposal have a hard sell in proving that a merger takes away a serious industry watchdog.