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Otter Creek coal owner says minimum price for state tracts too high

Otter Creek coal owner says minimum price for state tracts too high

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HELENA - The head of the company that owns more than half the coal in southeastern Montana's Otter Creek Valley said this week he'll be surprised if anyone bids on state-owned coal there, because the Land Board probably set the minimum price too high.

Chuck Kerr, president of Great Northern Properties in Houston, also told the Lee Newspapers State Bureau that the state is asking a lot by requiring potential coal developers to pay an entire "bonus bid" upfront.

"I think that's going to be a stretch," he said. "I think 25 cents (per ton) is too high. ... But we could be surprised."

Great Northern owns 730 million tons of coal in the Otter Creek Valley, about 150 miles east of Billings, and its coal is interspersed with 572 million tons of coal owned by the state.

On Dec. 21, the state Land Board decided to put the state coal up for bid to potential developers and set the minimum bonus bid at 25 cents a ton, or $143 million.

Great Northern announced a few weeks earlier that it had leased its coal to Arch Coal Inc. for a bonus bid of 10 cents a ton, and that Arch would pay the $70 million in five installments over the next five years.

The question now becomes whether any company will bid on the state-owned coal, which is probably needed to enable any large-scale coal mine development in the area. Companies have until Feb. 8 to submit their bids.

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Square-mile-sized tracts of the state-owned coal are interspersed in a checkerboard fashion with like-sized tracts of Great Northern coal in the valley, as part of the same giant coal field.

Arch Coal, a coal-mining giant based in St. Louis, is a likely candidate to bid on the state coal, since it's leasing the Great Northern coal.

Arch spokeswoman Kim Link said recently the company doesn't publicly disclose its bidding plans. "Because it's a competitive situation ... we have to keep the information close to our vest at this time," she said.

Mary Sexton, director of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said a company requested bid information from the state Thursday, but that it was not Arch Coal. She declined to reveal the company.

"We'll see if (companies) are interested in this amount or not," she said of the state's minimum bid price. "I think it's all part of risk-analysis, and this is an opportunity for coal companies."

Kerr said his company largely agreed with a third-party appraiser hired by the state that said the state coal could command a bonus bid of 5 cents to 10 cents per ton.

It's possible that Arch could mine the Great Northern coal without the state coal, but it would be a smaller operation, he said.

"If the state leases its coal, then (the coal field) could be most effectively and efficiently developed," Kerr said.

While the state is requiring a minimum bonus bid of 25 cents per ton, it's possible that lower bids could be submitted. Whatever bids are submitted - or not - state officials will examine the issue and make a recommendation to the Land Board on what to do, Sexton said.

The Land Board, composed of the state's top elected officials, is scheduled to examine the bids at its Feb. 16 meeting. It could accept or reject any bids or decide to authorize a new round of bidding at another price.

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