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Friday, June 14, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Greens Lose Bid to Review Coal Contract Documents

(CN) - A federal judge closed the book on the Natural Resources Defense Council's FOIA lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management seeking information about coal contracts in the Powder River Basin.

The decision stems from the Natural Resources Defense Council's bid to force the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management to release records related to noncompetitive bids in Mountain State contracts.

Stretching from southeast Montana to northeast Wyoming, the Powder River Basin holds one of the largest coal deposits in the world, supplying more than 40 percent of the coal in the United States.

The Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management have issued leases involving billions of tons of coal on these lands.

Since 1990, the bureau has received only one bid on 23 of the 28 lease sales, and the other five had only two bidders. The lack of competition sparked a probe by the Interior Department's inspector general and an audit by the Government Accountability Office.

In its original request, the NRDC sought "all information and analysis documents used to appraise" each of the Powder River Basin tracts and Interior Department "guidance, handbooks, manuals or similar documents with information on estimating the value of coal tracts."

In August, U.S. District Judge Paul Engelmayer ruled the government largely fulfilled its obligations to the NRDC under the Freedom of Information Act when it released redacted copies of four reports to the group.

On Thursday, Engelmayer decided the final outstanding dispute between the parties -- whether the redacted material, if disclosed, would significantly harm the government's commercial interests. And once again, the judge sided with the government.

Engelmayer explained his decision by noting that the material at issue clearly explains that the Bureau of Land Management uses a common qualitative methodology to estimate the fair market value of each tract of land.

"Disclosure of fully unredacted reports would reveal the factors that BLM considers at each stage of the valuation process, how its appraisers evaluate those factors, and the weight each factor is given," the judge wrote.

Further, Engelmayer said, "With that statistical model, bidders could ascertain the Government's estimate of future coal prices, a 'significant input variable.'"

As a result, access to qualitative narratives in unredacted reports "would allow prospective bidders to determine at least some of the numeric figures BLM uses to reach its fair market value estimates," the judge wrote.

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