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Crows sign coal deal with Wyoming group

CROW AGENCY, Mont. – Leaders of the Crow Tribe agreed Thursday to give a Wyoming mining company rights to lease an estimated 1.4 billion tons of coal beneath the tribe’s land in southeastern Montana.

The deal with Cloud Peak Energy involves more coal than the U.S. consumes annually, and revives stalled efforts to expand mining on the impoverished, 2.2 million-acre reservation.

Cloud Peak is hoping to ship the fuel overseas, tapping into coal export markets that have become increasingly attractive to mining companies as domestic demand falters due to competition from cheap natural gas and other factors.

Cloud Peak will pay the tribe $2.25 million up front. Additional payments in coming years could add up to $10 million for the tribe in exchange for leasing and exploration rights.

Approval from the Department of Interior is required before the deal can go into effect.

“The hopes and dreams have always been there of the Crow people developing that area,” Crow Chairman Darrin Old Coyote told a crowd of several hundred people gathered to witness the signing of the agreement in Crow Agency. “I ask that we all work together collectively as a tribe to push this project forward so we can all benefit from the massive natural resources we have as the Crow people.”

The future mining project was dubbed Big Metal in honor of a legendary Crow figure by the same name.

The tribe’s coal reserves are within the Powder River Basin, which accounts for about 40 percent of U.S. coal production.

Cloud Peak and other companies have been seeking to boost exports of the region’s coal through West Coast ports. They face resistance from environmentalists.

If Cloud Peak builds a mine, it would be the second on the reservation.

The Absaloka mine, which opened in 1974 and is owned by Westmoreland Resources Inc., produces about 6 million tons annually and employs about 80 people, according to data from the Mine Health and Safety Administration.