Interior plans merger of lands, coal mining agencies

“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,” Salazar said.

Salazar is signing an order that according to Interior creates a path for “strategic improvements” in the integration of administrative support functions, environmental restoration of abandoned mine lands, as well as regulations, inspections and enforcement.

Interior, in announcing the move, said it would be undertaken with input from employees, members of Congress and other parties. But it drew swift attack from House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.).

He called it part of an Obama administration effort to snuff out the U.S. coal industry and said he fears it will hurt the economy and jobs.

“The fact remains that the BLM and OSM have distinctly different missions – nowhere is this more evidenced than the dissimilarity between federal and private coal mining issues,” Hastings said.

“Placing millions of acres of private, Eastern coal mining and land reclamation under the purview of BLM will only serve to complicate BLM’s already intricate mission and undermine the entirely different, yet equally important job that OSM currently performs,” he said.

Hastings will delve further into the matter next week. The committee is holding a hearing Nov. 4 – which was scheduled before the announcement – on planned OSM stream protection regulations that the chairman calls onerous.

Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel with the environmental group Earthjustice, said OSM has long been “more of a coal industry lapdog than a watchdog” and cautioned “unless the agency and its leadership have the political will and resolve to do their job and work for the citizens of America as opposed to the corporations, it doesn’t really matter what bureaucratic box you stick them in.”

Mulhern said she hoped that whatever the new structure, the regulators would improve protection of Appalachian coal mining regions.

The 525-employee coal mining office oversees regulation with states, while BLM handles coal leasing and hardrock mining, in additional to oil-and-gas, grazing, recreation, conservation and other many other public lands issues.

Salazar’s plan comes after he revamped Interior’s long-troubled offshore drilling branch in the wake of the BP oil spill. The reorganization moved revenue collections away from drilling regulation entirely and, as of Oct. 1, created two new agencies: The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.