Mining Industry Vows to Fight New Coal Rule

Steam pours out of a coal-fired electricity generating plant in Colstrip, Montana. The federal government this week announced new rules concerning coal-mining operations in the United States. (Photo: David Reese)

(CN) — A federal rule announced this week designed to reduce the impacts of coal mining on water sources and streamline mining regulations has the industry steaming about what it calls a lack of consultation by the Obama administration.

“The responsible rule represents a modern and balanced approach to meeting the nation’s energy needs,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement this week. “Regulations need to keep pace with modern mining practices, so we worked closely with many stakeholders to craft a plan that protects water quality, supports economic opportunities, safeguards our environment and makes coalfield communities more resilient for a diversified economic future.”

But the mining industry says the rule is a last-ditch effort by the Obama administration to impose rules that are already in place, and the rule was implemented without the government listening to their input.

The National Mining Association said it opposes the Department of Interior’s new stream rule, and said they will call on Congress to pass a resolution of disapproval.

“The decision to promulgate this duplicative rule at this stage is post-election midnight regulation and therefore obstructionism at its worst,” Hal Quinn, National Mining Association president and CEO, said. “This is after the agency failed in its obligation to engage mining states in the rule’s development and ended up with a massive rule-making that is a win for bureaucracy and extreme environmental groups, and a loss for everyday Americans.”

The Department of Interior said the rule was brought forth after much deliberation and input from stakeholders, including states. However, according to the rule published this week, there were thousands of comments against the proposed rule, and several states backed out during the rule-making process.

The final rule updates 33-year old regulations and establishes “clear requirements” for what the department called “responsible surface coal mining.” The rule is “intended to protect 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forests over the next two decades, preserve community health and economic opportunities while meeting the nation’s energy needs,” the department said.

“This rule takes into account the extensive and substantive comments we received from state regulators, mining companies and local communities across the country,” Janice Schneider, assistant secretary for Land and Minerals Management, said. “We traveled the country, visited many mines, and met with many of the people who work and live in coal country to make sure we wrote the best rule possible – one that is both economically achievable and protective.”

The mining industry says it was largely ignored in the rule-making process.

“We testified at public listening sessions and of course submitted voluminous comments – all to no avail since the rule as final, as far as we can see, reflects none of our suggestions,” Luke Popovich, vice president of external communications for the National Mining Association, said. “To say it was transparent shows how utterly disingenuous the administration is: why then did so many states complain they weren’t consulted or given relevant information in a timely way for their assessment?”

Quinn said the rule disregards state authority and expertise. According to the National Mining Association, eight out of 10 states that originally signed on as state cooperating agencies in the rule developing process withdrew from their agreements after four years without any dialogue because the federal government failed to consult with them.

The Interior Department said the new rule makes environmental accountability easier for mining companies and the states that oversee their operations.

“Through clear, measurable standards, the rule promotes operational accountability to achieve the environmental restoration required when mining operations were permitted,” the department said in a press statement. “Economic impacts were thoroughly analyzed and the final rule is projected to have a negligible impact on the coal industry overall.”

The new mining rule will lead to more bureaucracy for mining companies and will harm the U.S. job market, according to the National Mining Association. Under the rule, up to 64 percent of U.S. coal reserves could be off-limits to mining — a result that the mining association says contradicts current regulatory policies designed to encourage surface and underground mining.

A third of coal-related jobs are could be lost because of the massive volumes of coal that would be economically unfeasible to mine, the association said. It based its job-loss estimates on its analysis at 36 surface and underground mines in the United States. However, the federal government’s economic study was based on “hypothetical mines,” the association said.

Quinn said his organization will take this fight into the new year, with a new presidential administration that will back them.

“The rule provides no discernible environmental benefits while duplicating and interfering with extensive existing environmental protections at the federal and state levels – duplication and interference which is expressly prohibited under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act,” Quinn said in a statement.

Quinn said the rule’s primary purpose appears to be to support the environmental lobby’s “keep it in the ground” platform, aimed at “locking away important U.S. domestic coal reserves while putting tens of thousands of Americans out of work, raising energy costs for millions of Americans, and preserving the agency’s regulatory mission that is diminished with the declining number of coal mines.”

Coal mining in the United States contributes about $18.5 billion annually in state and federal tax revenue, according to the National Mining Association. The new rule would reduce these revenues 15 to 35 percent, the association said.