Members of Montana’s congressional delegation said Thursday they will seek to make permanent a tax break for coal mined from reserves owned by American Indian tribes.

During a Thursday appearance in Billings with members of the Crow Tribe, Rep. Ryan Zinke said he plans to introduce legislation in coming days to revive the tax breaks that expired in December.

Zinke said the tax breaks are intended to make up for the extra bureaucratic hurdles faced by companies that must get federal approval to mine on tribal lands.

“It’s not a handout,” said the first-term Republican. “What it does is level the playing field so Crow coal can be competitive.”

U.S. Sens. Jon Tester, a Democrat, and Steve Daines, a Republican, will pursue the same goal of making the tax breaks permanent, according to their offices. Tester is vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

Westmoreland Coal Company’s Absaloka mine produced 6.5 million tons of coal last year from reserves owned by southeastern Montana’s Crow Tribe.

The tax break was worth $2.32 for every ton of coal mined, making the Colorado company eligible for roughly $15 million in tax breaks if all the mine’s coal qualifies.

Wyoming-based Cloud Peak Energy is proposing another mine on the Crow reservation that would produce up to 10 million tons of coal annually.

Crow Chairman Darrin Old Coyote said revenue from coal accounts for two-thirds of the tribe’s annual budget. Without the tax break, he predicted that production of coal on the reservation would diminish and there would be less money for health services, law enforcement and education.

“We have an abundance of resources, and we’re willing to use those resources,” Old Coyote said. The tax breaks offer “a hand up for us to be self-sufficient.”

Under current law, the tax break applies only to mines put into service before 2009. A draft of Zinke’s bill provided by his office includes language to lift the date restriction so that Cloud Peak’s proposed Big Metal Mine would qualify.

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