Republican members of the energy and minerals subcommittee from the House Committee on Natural Resources argued the Powder River Basin was an example of the economic success of coal mining on federal lands, and leasing should continue to be extended.
Subcommittee chairman Doug Lamborn said an increasing global demand for coal presents the country with an opportunity to boost production and lease more federal land.
"It would be the height of folly to throw this resource away," Lamborn said at Tuesday's hearing, according to The Associated Press.
Lamborn warned that President Obama’s recently announced plan to curb emissions from coal-fired power plants threatens to damage development in the PRB and other coal-producing regions.
Crow Nation chairman Darrin Old Coyote, Campbell County Commissioners chairman Dan Coolidge, distinguished senior fellow at the Institute for Energy Research Mary J Hutler and the deputy inspector general at the Department of the Interior Mary Kendall all presented testimony before the hearing.
The Crow tribe recently signed a deal with Cloud Peak for a new mine on their south-eastern Montana reservation.
Old Coyote told the lawmakers that his tribe receives critical revenue from mining in the region and without it unemployment would likely grow from 47% to 80%.
“The Crow Nation has very substantial undeveloped coal resources,” Old Coyote said.
“In fact, today, the Crow Indian Reservation contains 2 million acres in subsurface mineral rights, including an estimated 9 billion tons of coal. The Crow Nation has developed a limited amount of its resource, by leasing a portion of its coal reserves for 39 continuous years to Westmoreland Resources.
“WRI owns and operates the Absaloka mine, a 15000-acre single pit surface coal mine complex near Hardin, Montana, on the northern border of the Crow Reservation.
“Westmoreland employs a 70% tribal workforce, with an average annual salary of over $66,000, and a total employment expense of approximately $18.6 million dollars. The Absaloka mine is the largest private employer within the Crow Reservation.
“The importance of the mine to the economy of the Crow Reservation cannot be overstated. Without question, it is a critical source of jobs, financial support and domestically produced energy. WRI has been the Crow Nation’s most significant private partner over the past 39 years.”
The AP report that the Democratic members of the panel used the hearing to highlight the recent Interior Department inspector general's investigation that estimated at least $62 million in potential lost revenues due to the agency undervaluing coal.
Kendell said the BLM can improve the leasing program but sample of leases studied found instances where bids were accepted below fair-market value and where revenue was lost after some leases were modified, shortchanging taxpayers.
A second report on the leasing program is expected imminently from the Government Accountability Office, while a separate Interior investigation underway since February is examining whether mining companies are paying sufficient royalties on exported coal.
Tuesday's House hearing was requested by Lamborn, a Colorado Republican.