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Fed report reviews restraints on Powder River production




The Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana is the largest known coal deposit in the United States with an estimated 550 billion tons of federally owned coal in the ground, but only 1.5 percent of it is currently available for mining, according to a new federal report.

The remainder is either off limits entirely because mining is prohibited by law, such as areas designated as wilderness, or is not being mined because the coal is unreachable or the land is being used for other purposes.

Greg Schaefer, spokesman for Arch Coal Inc., which operates two mines in the Powder River Basin, said the coal in the basin is shaped like a bathtub, with the edges near the land surface and then dropping deep underground in the middle.

“That coal can be several thousand feet deep in the middle,” Schaefer said. “There’s no technology for that kind of operation.”

Most of the mines in the basin are open pits where huge shovels remove the dirt and rock to expose the coal underneath. Most coal being mined is about 200 feet below the surface.

The Powder River Basin straddles the Wyoming-Montana border, but most of it is located in northeast Wyoming. Mines just on the Wyoming side of the basin produced about 430 million tons of coal in 2006, by far the most productive coal region in the United States. The vast majority of the mined coal is used by power plants to generate electricity.

A federal report issued last week said the government owned 957 billion tons of coal deposits nationwide, with 550 billion tons, or about 58 percent of the total, located in the Powder River Basin. An additional 11.6 billion tons in the basin is currently being leased for mining or being sought for leasing.

Of the 6.8 million acres with coal deposits in the basin, only 81,962, or 1.5 percent, is available for mining coal under standard lease terms, according to the federal report prepared by the U.S. Interior, Energy and Agriculture departments. The standard lease terms require coal mining companies to comply with various clean air, clean water and surface mining laws.

Coal mining is prohibited on another 11 percent, or about 590,000 acres, in the basin, according to the report.

The remaining 87.5 percent of the basin’s coal deposits, or about 4.7 million acres, is available for leasing but is not being mined because of various hurdles and restrictions, including the land on top of the coal is owned by someone other than the federal government, the coal cannot be mined because it is too deep, or mining is not allowed under current land use rules.

Schaefer noted coal underneath railroads, highways and towns can’t be mined.

“The entire city of Gillette is underlain by coal,” he said.

Other obstacles faced by coal companies include endangered species and roadless areas, he said.

The report, which was requested by the late Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., doesn’t offer any judgments on coal mining restrictions.

“I think that’s something that Congress would have to determine, Congress or the public,” said Matt Spangler, spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management in Washington, D.C.


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