When more than a dozen elected officials copy, and then pass off as their own, a coal industry letter warning the feds to tread lightly on publicly owned fossil fuels, is that carbon copying?

The U.S. Department of Interior is reconsidering whether Americans are receiving a “fair return” on sales of coal, oil and natural gas taken from public lands. The process has sparked debate in Montana and Wyoming between people who believe federal coal is being sold too cheaply and coal supporters who say increasing the cost of public coal will discourage future mining.

Last month, coal proponents scored a major victory by convincing the Department of Interior to hold off on its rule making for 60 days so that more people could respond. Members of the Montana Legislature, along with county commissioners and mayors from Montana and Wyoming communities put the weight of their political offices behind letters asking the DOI for more time. What they didn’t offer were their own words.

Consistently the letter elected officials signed as their own were copies of a 300-word form letter circulated by Cloud Peak Energy, a coal mining company.

The similarity of the letters didn’t go unnoticed.

“It’s particularly troubling that some elected officials will allow industry groups to write their official correspondence,” said Chris Saeger, Western Values Project director. “Montanans expect their representatives to speak for them, not the special interests that stand to gain or lose from the policies we elected them to make."

The Western Value Project plays a watchdog role on public lands issues involving the federal government and industry. Contacted by The Gazette, Saeger said issues like what the federal government collects for coal from federal lands deserves rigorous debate, but that the debate isn’t happening if “a handful of companies are going to pull the strings behind the scenes.”

The elected officials who used the form letter said there was nothing wrong with the practice, given that they agreed with what the letter said.

“We are asked a lot of times to endorse something and what happens is, with the letter, we’re in agreement on, such as the coal, we will add our names to that,” said Yellowstone County Commissioner Bill Kennedy, a Democrat.

Kennedy couldn’t recall who gave the letter to the Yellowstone County Commission to sign, but later said it was the Big Sky Economic Development Corporation. It wasn’t.

Big Sky EDC Director Steven Arveschoug said the letter was presented to his organization earlier this year by Cloud Peak Energy.

Big Sky EDC didn’t use the letter because it wasn’t comfortable suggesting that it was familiar with all the information included in the letter.

“Cloud Peak Energy has been meeting with groups across Montana and Wyoming, where our mines are, about our concerns with the proposed rule, and a sample letter like this was included as part of those briefings,” said Rick Curtsinger, Cloud Peak communications director.

“This proposed rule change appears to be a continuation of the Administration’s onslaught on the coal industry and threatens the reliable and affordable energy it provides,” Curtsinger said. The rule “would, for the first time, assess royalties on logistics services provided by coal companies who arrange delivery to domestic and international customers. Such a significant change to the application of a rule creates significant uncertainty that will have a chilling effect on investment while adding to the large regulatory burden already faced by the industry.”

Sen. Roger Webb, R-Billings, signed the letter with several other state legislators. He said he couldn’t recall who wrote it.

Webb Brown, director of the Montana Chamber of Commerce said elected officials probably got the letter from his agency.

“I’d have to take credit for it. Others may have copied it, but we put it together ourselves,” Brown said.

However the Montana Chamber’s version of the letter submitted to DOI included a fill-in-the-blank instruction in the second paragraph for which Brown couldn’t account.

The paragraph reads: “We are concerned that the likely outcome from this rule will be diminished sales of federal energy resources and diminished revenues for state and federal entities that may impact (insert name/group/entity).”

The same insert-name language was included in a form letter from Sheridan, Wyo., Mayor John Heath. Of the Elected officials who actually inserted a name into the form letter, none mentioned Cloud Peak Energy.

The Montana Coal Council’s letter matched almost verbatim letters from the Montana Chamber, Billings Chamber, Yellowstone County Commissioners, and State Senate President Debby Barrett. However, coal council CEO Bud Clinch said the similarities were the product of multiple conversations among groups in which mutual talking points surfaced.

“No, I did not provide a letter to other people to copy. No, I didn’t. I don’t even know the entities you’re talking about,” Clinch said.

Clinch said his first discussions about the issue were with Cloud Peak.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., was credited in the press for leading the drive to get the comment period extended. His own letter, signed by 14 other congressmen, including Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., and Wyoming's delegation, contained passages similar to the Cloud Peak letter, but wasn't nearly verbatim like the other letters.

“Yes, we worked closely with the Crow Tribe, Cloud Peak Energy, fellow members of Congress, and other Montanans who approached us with their serious concerns about the consequences of this proposed rule when developing the language of this letter, which included over a dozen other Members of Congress and is similar to letters sent by Gov. Bullock and Sen. Tester,” said Alee Lockman, Daines’ communications director. “The concerns are the same.”

U.S. Sen Jon Tester, D-Mont, and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock did both submit letters supporting the 60-day comment extension, however the letters didn’t share Cloud Peak’s language.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.