Reprinted with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. Not for republication by Wyoming media.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed an order yesterday that would tuck the Office of Surface Mining into the sprawling Bureau of Land Management.

Salazar told Interior Department employees at a meeting his goal is to strengthen OSM’s oversight of coal mining and reclamation by combining the smaller regulatory agency with the more muscular BLM, which manages roughly 250 million acres concentrated largely in the West.

Among other benefits, officials said the combined agencies would have more clout in Capitol Hill battles over funding.

“I think it will be easier for us to be able to do that when we are dealing with a larger organization when we have OSM and BLM working together,” Salazar said. “OSM is here today and will continue to be here in the future.”

The order will take effect Dec. 1, following consultation with the White House, Congress and workers, Interior officials said. Deputy Secretary David Hayes will work with BLM Director Bob Abbey and OSM chief Joseph Pizarchik to develop a reorganization schedule.

“This is not about having an agency have its people kicked out the door,” Salazar told employees. “That is not what is going to happen here.”

He added, “We’re going to come out of this stronger a year from now than we are today.”

The reorganization will focus on merging administrative functions, notably communications and human resources, Interior said. The order also calls on the offices to combine mine reclamation oversight and fee collection.

“The secretary has asked us to build on our strengths by looking at how we can best integrate certain functions with the BLM,” Pizarchik said in a statement, “so that we are making the most effective use of limited resources.”

Salazar acknowledged staffing crunches at OSM, which currently has about 500 employees. The agency is responsible for overseeing coal mining and reclamation; it mostly supervises state and tribal regulators.

OSM’s 2011 budget appropriation is about $160 million, compared to more than $1.1 billion for BLM, which has about 10,000 workers. President Obama and lawmakers have proposed more cuts to OSM.

Reaction trends negative

Republicans reacted angrily about not being briefed on the plan ahead of Salazar’s announcement.

“If this was a legitimate effort to streamline government and save money, I must question why this decision was made without consultation with the public or Congress,” House Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) said in a statement.

Lawmakers will question Pizarchik next week when he appears before the Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee.

“BLM and OSM have separate duties and responsibilities that each help generate revenue for the federal government and support job creation,” Hastings said. “Any action that could diminish their ability to effectively and efficiently do their job could cause serious harm to our economy.”

A former Interior official, who asked to remain anonymous, questioned the logic of the merger.

“Where’s the consistency if your same perspective is that surface reclamation of coal, and [abandoned mine lands] and administering the fund is intertwined nicely with wilderness, wild horses and burros, wild and scenic rivers, oil and gas and renewable energy?” the former official said.

Interior officials say their aim is to follow the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, which led to the creation of OSM.

“OSM and the BLM have many complementary responsibilities with respect to mining and the reclamation of mine lands, and it makes sense to explore how we can bring the best out of the two bureaus as they carry out their statutory responsibilities,” Abbey said in a statement. “Examining new organizational structures can be challenging, but we must be open to new ideas and new ways of thinking about how to make government work better.”

Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), who was a deputy Interior secretary under President Clinton, said in an interview that a previous reduction in Interior staff hadn’t hurt the department.

“A good administrator will make sure everything gets done,” Garamendi said. “I’m not concerned about it.”

Streamling permits, building trust

The mining industry is hoping a reorganization means a more streamlined permitting and oversight process. Leaders say they also want to make sure states keep significant regulatory powers under SMCRA. They are actively fighting OSM’s forthcoming stream protection rule.

Earler this week, former OSM Director Kathy Karpan called the merger a “lousy idea” in an interview from her office in Wyoming. “In the scheme of government fat,” she said, “OSM is one of the tiniest little targets you can take aim at.”

Karpan, who served between 1997 and 2000, said OSM was working on a “skeleton staff.” “It’s a little tiny entity that would be lost at BLM,” she said (E&E Daily, Oct. 26).

Environmentalists, on the other hand, want to see a stronger OSM. Many activists have never trusted Pizarchik, even as he reiterates his commitment to the controversial rulemaking.

“For many years, despite its very reason for being, [OSM] has been more of a coal industry lapdog than a watchdog, and that’s continued during this administration under Director Pizarchik,” Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel for Earthjustice, said in a statement.

“Sometimes a reorganization and a shakeup can help,” Mulhern said, “but 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.”

Click here to read the Interior Department secretarial order.

Click here to read an Interior Department question-and-answer document.

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