Northern Cheyenne has deal to swap coal leases

Helena, Montana (AP) December 2010
The Northern Cheyenne tribe and two coal companies told Gov. Brian Schweitzer last week that they have a new deal to swap mineral rights in the region.

The tribe said it will be getting tracts of mineral rights within its borders to make sure it has control of its own property, along with the promise of about $70 million in compensation in the future from Congress. Great Northern Properties, a key player in the nearby Otter Creek Coal tracts, said in exchange it will receive rights to federally owned tracts of coal near other properties they already own.

Some of the tracts would then be leased to the Signal Peak Mine south of Roundup to allow for that operation’s expansion.

The proposal requires approval by Congress. Tribal leaders said the state’s congressional delegation supports the plan.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer said he will support it if the tribe does when the package comes before the state Land Board for its approval. But Schweitzer said he worries opposition to the plan could come forward since support on the reservation has historically been mixed for coal development in the area.

Tribal leaders said the reservation government is fully supportive of the plan.

“I don’t believe there will be anyone there against it,” said Tracy Robinson, a member of the tribal council.

The tribe does not plan on developing its own reserves, but wants to make sure it has ownership rights over them.

The tribal leaders said they have been told it is not feasible to get $70 million in federal money for compensation in the current political environment. They decided to go along with the exchange now, with a promise of the money at a future date, since it is important for the tribe to own all of the resources within its borders.

Tribal leaders told the governor that they hope federal legislation enacting the swap can be advanced early next year.

The state recently leased its portion of the nearby Otter Creek coal tracts, as did Great Northern Properties, to mining giant Arch Coal Inc. The vast reserves in the area are expected to serve coal markets in the Pacific Rim.

The Signal Peak Mine, already in operation, has undergone hundreds of millions in renovations in recent years and could expand if the coal swap is completed.