Transportation bill has unintended consequences for cleanups

An offset in the transportation bill that President Obama is signing today may have unintended consequences for mine cleanup efforts around the country.

The measure caps coal mine reclamation payments at $15 million for states and tribes that are certified to have finished cleaning up their priority sites -- the first time a true cap has ever existed. But because the rider effectively amends the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, its long-term impacts may be felt in mining communities around the country.

"It affects the noncertified states, as well," including Pennsylvania and West Virginia, said Interstate Mining Compact Commission Director Greg Conrad. "I don't know how that couldn't happen the way the law is structured."

Because the new measure took mining advocates, many lawmakers and even Obama administration officials by surprise, they have spent the last several days trying to figure out what the offset means and how it affects the abandoned mine land funding system, which follows a complicated formula for money distribution.

Without a doubt, Wyoming will take the most direct blow. The nation's top coal-producing jurisdiction is the only certified state with expected future annual payments above $15 million. The state could end up losing about $700 million over the next several years.


"Our view is that if that money does not get paid to Wyoming, it cannot get reallocated to … historic coal states," Conrad said, speaking about the noncertified states -- many of which have long coal mining legacies with longstanding mine reclamation needs.

Where the money will go remains a mystery to many lawmakers and officials analyzing the transportation bill. It isn't clear how the reclamation provision got inserted in the transportation package, and Conrad said rulemaking may be necessary to clarify the situation.

Wyoming lawmakers, including Republican Sen. John Barrasso, are pledging to undo the offset. The path forward, however, remains unclear, along with the willingness of leaders on Capitol Hill to make changes to the transportation compromise.

"Sen. Barrasso will continue to work with congressional leaders to fix this backdoor provision that robbed Wyoming of the millions that belong to them," a spokeswoman said.

Because Wyoming has finished cleaning up its priority abandoned coal mine sites and receives so much AML money -- $150 million in fiscal 2012 grants alone -- lawmakers in the state dole the money out for things like highway projects and the University of Wyoming.

"Wyoming's controversial spending habits put this money at risk," Shannon Anderson, an organizer with the Powder River Basin Resource Council, said in a statement. "We have asked the Governor's Office and the legislature to return to the core mission of the AML fund, which is to address the impacts of energy development.

"In that light," she added, "we are equally concerned if Congress raids the fund for other purposes, like transportation spending. In doing so, Congress might not be acting any better than Wyoming."

Taxes on coal mining fund the AML program, and industry leaders have made no secret of wanting to see the money spent on coal mine reclamation efforts. But because Wyoming produces so much coal, the state's lawmakers say much of the money belongs to them.

"Sen. Barrasso has always told Washington that AML money belongs to the people of Wyoming and should already be in Wyoming's treasury," the senator's spokeswoman said.

A spokesman for Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) said a staffer discovered the offset last Thursday morning, a day before both the House and Senate passed the transportation bill. He said the state's delegation didn't have the time and votes to strip the rider. Members claim to have assurances from congressional leaders that they will address the issue in the future.

Another mystery to many people around the core of the transportation bill negotiations is who pushed for the offset in the first place.

Several sources have pointed at members of the House Ways and Means Committee or the Senate Finance Committee as likely culprits -- particularly Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who is familiar with AML issues and sat on the transportation conference committee. Montana is a certified state like Wyoming, but the payout threshold for mining reclamation spared it from direct cuts.

A Baucus spokeswoman said the senator is on record supporting the AML fund compromise. In fact, he has helped thwart other efforts to eliminate all payments to certified states and tribes, including his own.

"While Senator Baucus did not raise this provision in the conference," the senator's office said in a statement, "he did not oppose it, because it cracks down on wasteful spending while protecting states like Montana who are using their AML money for mine cleanup."

Montana is also trying to differentiate itself from Wyoming by highlighting the use of coal reclamation dollars for cleaning up abandoned hardrock mines. There is no separate fund or tax for such cleanups, something President Obama hopes to change.

"AML mine money in Montana goes to hard rock mine cleanup and hard rock mine cleanup only," the Baucus statement said. "Montana has thousands of abandoned hard rock mines that Montana uses its AML dollars to clean up."

Numerous attempts by the Obama administration and some lawmakers on Capitol Hill to reform the mine reclamation system have gone nowhere, in part because of a reluctance to undo the previous 2006 funding distribution compromise. The transportation conference effectively did so before most lawmakers realized what had happened.

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