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GOP lawmaker slams Interior proposal to scrap mine reclamation pilot program

A key GOP legislator blasted the U.S. Interior Department's proposal to cancel an economic development program tied to reclaiming abandoned coal mines, but lawmakers gave little other indication on how they will respond to the department's fiscal-year 2018 budget request, including the Trump administration's call to increase funding for energy permitting in federal areas.

The U.S. House Appropriations Committee's Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Subcommittee held a June 8 hearing on Interior's fiscal-year 2018 budget request. The Trump administration has requested $11.7 billion for the department in fiscal-year 2018, down 12% from what Congress authorized in a continuing resolution for fiscal-year 2017. The declines are part of Trump's plan to increase military spending by $54 billion.

As part of the proposal, Interior would eliminate the Abandoned Mine Land Economic Development Grants pilot program managed by Interior's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, or OSMRE. The department said the initiative's funding overlapped with existing mandatory AML grants. The AML pilot program provides grants to three Appalachian coal-mining states Kentucky, Pennsylvania and West Virginia to accelerate remediation of abandoned mine sites in a way that creates economic and community development opportunities.

Interior's call to scrap the program drew a withering response from U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., a former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee who still sits on the panel.

"I was completely flabbergasted in seeing in your budget request the elimination of that program this coming from an administration that I had been led to believe was wanting to help coal country," Rogers told Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke at the hearing. The Kentucky congressman called the pilot program a "win-win" for the environment and struggling coal communities, and said the request to scrap the program "sends a blaring, glaring message to these desperate people [who] had a big impact in the recent elections."

Rogers said his office asked OSMRE to to create a report on the projects funded under the AML pilot program in fiscal-year 2016, but the U.S. Office of Management and Budget ordered the study to be canceled.

"I just want to say to you, Mr. Secretary, this is serious stuff," Rogers told Zinke. "I'm hopeful that you can at least shake loose that report." Zinke replied that he had not heard of the report but would do what he could to "shake that loose."

The hearing was one of Trump's first energy-related budget tests before Congress for fiscal-year 2018. Democrats on the subcommittee said Interior's request would gut funding for programs to manage public lands and put the "profits of oil companies above the public good," Subcommittee Ranking Member Betty McCollum, D-Minn., said.

GOP members were more measured in their response. Subcommittee Chairman Ken Calvert, R-Calif., said the panel would examine the administration's budget request "account-by-account, line-by-line" but declined to elaborate on much of the proposal. He did, however, praise Interior's decision to review the government's authority under the Antiquities Act to designate national monuments, saying the designations often ignored the concerns of local communities and stakeholders.

"Ultimately, Congress will have the final say over the fiscal-year 2018 budget," Calvert said.

In addition to scrapping the AML pilot program, Trump's budget request would cut funding for Interior's Bureau of Land Management, which oversees leasing of federal lands for energy production. But the administration proposed raising Interior's overall spending on energy-related programs to $791.2 million, an increase of $16.3 million from 2017. A combined $375.9 million would go to offshore energy development, up by $1.1 million from the prior year.

BLM's onshore oil and gas management program would get $75.9 million, a $16 million increase that Interior said would help improve permit application processing and streamline leasing. The bureau's coal management budget would rise by $8 million to a total of $19 million to "reduce processing times, simplify the lease application process, and improve the timeliness to complete lease sale fair market value determinations," Interior said in a summary of the budget.

The House Appropriations Committee typically releases its spending bills in the spring or summer. Committee spokeswoman Jennifer Hing said the panel had "no schedule as of yet" for releasing the spending bills.