It was created in 1977 when Congress enacted the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA). The Bureau of Land Management manages vast stretches of federal land (245 million acres). With respect to coal, the bureau coordinates the leasing process and collects royalties.

The idea immediately met with considerable criticism. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA) said during late October 2011 he had serious concerns about this Secretarial Order to suddenly and dramatically alter the management of coal mining and the multiple-use of Western BLM lands. “The Obama administration has not made secret its desire to put an end to America’s coal mining industry and this appears to be one more step in that direction,” Hastings said.

Not letting common sense get in the way of a bad idea, Secretary Salazar forged ahead. The Department of Interior (DoI) had originally set December 1, 2011, as the date for the merger by Executive Order, but in the face of strong opposition, it delayed the decision and decided it would hold a series of meetings around the country to solicit input from “stakeholders” on the proposed consolidation. He directed OSM and BLM officials as well as other Interior officials to report by February 15, 2012.

While the final decision and the results of those discussions have not yet been made public, the reports from the meetings reinforce the fact that most people think it’s a dumb idea. It is strongly opposed by almost everyone outside the DoI. One report from the Denver meeting said the explanation by officials drew jeers from a crowd of about two dozen people. A natural resources lawyer cleverly joked the Obama administration had finally put forward an idea with which both miners and environmental activists could agree.

The National Mining Association (NMA) attended the hearing in Washington and also noted how rarely a proposal has been so comprehensively opposed by industry and environmental stakeholders. “It’s very unusual for every witness to come down against a proposal like this and still have it more forward,” said NMA’s Associate General Counsel Bradford Frisby, who testified against the proposal.

Many have questioned the legality of the proposed merger, given the clear direction the Congress gave under SMCRA. The Act says that OSM’s authorities over coal mining are not to be delegated to other agencies or subordinated under other authorities. In May 2011, Coal Age reported how mission creep at OSM was usurping the authority of state agencies to regulate coal mining and further delaying permits. OSM abandoned the 2008 Stream Buffer Zone rule. In 2010, OSM issued a memo asserting the agency’s authority to interfere with state permitting decisions, contradicting SMCRA, which grants states with an approved state program exclusive jurisdiction over surface coal operations within its borders. Considering the direction the agency has taken recently, one has to wonder was the merger simply a bad idea that should be withdrawn or is it part of a plan to further complicate the permitting process?