The Associated Press reports that a top Interior Department official has questioned a proposal to transfer 232 million tons of publicly owned coal to a private company under an exchange anticipated to benefit the Northern Cheyenne Tribe in Montana.
Houston-based Great Northern Properties stands to get almost twice as much coal as it would give the Tribe in the proposed deal, although not all the fuel the company received could be mined. The company and tribe also would share tens of millions of dollars in future coal royalties.
The exchange previously was described by Great Northern and others involved as roughly an even swap because not all the coal the company gets could be mined. The deal is backed by leaders of the impoverished tribe, Montana’s congressional delegation and Signal Peak Energy.
House and Senate bills have been introduced to enact the swap.
Great Northern acquired rights to the coal beneath the reservation from Burlington Northern Railroad in 1992. Tribal leaders say those rights should have been turned over to the Tribe in 1900, when the reservation was expanded to include the land above the underground reserves but not the coal itself.
Despite an unemployment rate topping 60 percent, the Northern Cheyenne historically have shied away from exploiting coal tracts estimated to contain 1.9 billion tons of the fuel. Development pressures have increased since the nearby Otter Creek reserves were leased to mining giant Arch Coal Inc. by the state Land Board.