Salazar delays plans for OSMRE-BLM merger

November 29, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

As we reported in this morning’s Gazette, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar appears to have taken action that would delay any merger of the federal Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement with the Bureau of Land Management:

In a related move on Monday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced he was delaying a report on his proposed merger of OSM with the Bureau of Land Management from Dec. 1 to Feb. 15. A prepared statement said the move was aimed at allowing more input from interested parties.

There’s an updated order from Secretary Salazar posted here, along with this statement from his press spokesman, Adam Fletcher:

In the weeks since Secretary Salazar directed OSM and BLM leadership to evaluate how certain functions of BLM and OSM might be consolidated to further strengthen the bureaus’ mining regulatory and abandoned mine land reclamation programs and achieve important efficiencies – without losing OSM’s independence as a regulatory body — some of the Department’s most senior officials have testified before Congressional committees; consulted with staff of the applicable committees as well as the Office of Management and Budget; and held employee meetings in Denver, Pittsburgh, Alton, Ill., and Washington, D.C., to discuss the proposed consolidation.

The discussions that have been conducted to date have been very productive. In particular, they have helped to identify efficiencies that OSM might gain by having BLM handle some of OSM’s administrative functions, in much the same way as some bureaus in the Department provide administrative support functions for other, smaller bureaus and offices. At the same time, it appears that some of OSM’s core functions might be strengthened by adding BLM’s abandoned mine reclamation program and BLM’s coal-related inspection responsibilities to OSM’s similar programs. Informative discussions also are underway regarding how best to maintain OSM’s independence over its regulatory responsibilities under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

Consistent with the Secretary’s plan to not move forward with a potential consolidation without full coordination and input of employees, members of Congress, states, tribes, industry, representatives of communities affected by coal production and other interested parties – and recognizing that additional discussions and consultations will be helpful – Secretary Salazar today issued an amended order that will provide additional time for input from interested parties. In the amended order, the Secretary asks the Deputy Secretary, the Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management, the Director of OSM, and the Director of the BLM to produce a written report by February 15, 2012 that incorporates input received from these many sources, and which recommends next steps. A new effective date for the secretarial order will be set forth following the February 15, 2012 report to the Secretary.

We remain committed to making government work better to further strengthen our regulatory, reclamation and stewardship responsibilities, and we are confident we can do this by building on the strengths of both OSM and BLM to get the most out of our limited resources. We look forward to continuing our discussions with employees, members of Congress and stakeholders throughout this process so that we ensure that any organizational changes are successful and consistent with our authorities under the law.

OK … fine. We’ve discussed here before on Coal Tattoo about how this whole situation is pretty bizarre, and it continues to grow more strange, especially as coal industry advocates in Congress and among coal-state industry regulators fight to keep OSMRE from moving toward this merger.

Just think about the way things are lining up:

— Coal industry officials, coal-state lawmakers and congressional friends of the mining industry complaint more vocally every day about the Obama administration’s efforts to use federal agencies — primarily EPA, but also OSMRE — to crack down on coal industry abuses, especially those linked to mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia.

— At the same time, that same axis of powerful players appears almost desperate to stop the Obama Interior Department from doing what they usually are all about demanding — saving some money by consolidating some functions of two related government agencies. Making things even more odd, such a consolidation would almost undoubtedly give those coal industry supports part of what they want — a lesser role in coal-mining regulation for the federal government.

A more cynical person than I might suggest that coal industry supporters want to protect OSMRE because the agency — at least in the eyes of environmentalists and the anti-mountaintop removal movement — is far closer to the industry and more likely to eventually craft regulations and oversight policies the agency prefers to the ongoing crackdown by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

But against this backdrop, coal industry supporters are also waging quite a campaign to discredit OSMRE’s efforts to rewrite the stream buffer zone rule, to the point of bringing two industry consultants-turned whistle-blowers before a congressional committee to allege agency officials tried to fudge numbers about the regulatory proposal’s potential economic impacts.

What’s going on with all of this? Where is it headed? Hard to say. But one thing is for sure: Hardly anyone in this little play is focusing on the real issue, which West Virginia University law professor Pat McGinley tried to bring the discussion around to during a Senate committee hearing two weeks ago:

Historically Secretaries of the Interior have treated OSM as a poor stepchild of the Department – an agency with a narrow focus on only one mineral and on enforcement rather than federal public land management. The agency has long been significantly underfunded, as Director Pizarchik recently conceded. However, the burial of an underfunded half-alive OSM in the behemoth bureaucracy of BLM is beyond any prior marginalization of the agency.

Many coalfield citizens who understand the role of OSM under SMCRA feel that Secretary Salazar’s issuance of Order 3315 shows a fundamental disrespect for them and their communities. I suspect, however, that the decision to issue this Order was grounded in a failure to recognize and appreciate the mission of the long beleaguered OSM.

Let me briefly explain. Over the years since enactment of SMCRA those whom I represent have at times been very critical of regulatory and policy decisions made by OSM political appointees. Nevertheless, the field personnel and technical experts within OSM have frequently taken citizen complaints and concerns seriously. These front-line OSM inspectors, geologists and mining engineers have been crucial in OSM’s efforts to implement SMCRA’s mandate to protect those who live over and near coal mines from environmental and socio-economic injuries that accompany violations of SMCRA.

There are numerous examples of OSM’s field inspectors and technical experts using their expertise to prevent mining operations that would have harmed coalfield communities and families. These professional OSM staffers also have, in some situations, been permitted to use their expertise to develop facts that allow coalfield families who have suffered injuries to have their rights vindicated through SMCRA-created administrative or judicial remedies. These efforts of front-line men and women of OSM are accomplished using their skills, expertise and savvy garnered from years of working cooperatively with coal operators and state program regulators.

Sadly, one can examine Secretarial Order 3315, DOI news releases and the statements of agency officials without finding a reference to the OSM mission regarding coalfield communities. Whether grounded in disrespect of coalfield citizens or ignorance of OSM’s mission and its’ impact in the coalfields, Order No. 3315 dishonors the letter and spirit of the SMCRA and should be withdrawn. Perhaps, at the highest levels of the Department of the Interior the controversy triggered by this ill-considered and cavalier administrative decision will give rise to a new understanding and appreciation of OSM’s mission – and renewed respect for coalfield citizens.

Even Democratic lawmakers aren’t willing to delve into this in any real detail and try to use this as a teachable moment about what’s wrong with OSMRE and what needs to be done to fix it … All we got out of Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman yesterday was this little statement about Secretary Salazar’s delay of the merger:

I’m glad that Secretary Salazar has decided to postpone any consolidation of BLM and OSM until additional analysis has been done on the legal issues involved and the likely effects of such realignment on the programs of both agencies.

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