(CN) – In yet another signal of the Trump administration’s departure from the previous administration’s environmental policies in favor of robust fossil fuel development, President Donald Trump nominated a former mining engineer to run the Interior Department Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement on Thursday.
Trump announced the nomination of Steven Gardner Thursday, a move that was hailed by coal industry executives and fossil fuel barons – and swiftly decried by environmentalists.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke also praised the move, saying, “Steve will be an unbelievable asset to coal country and the entire team at the Department of the Interior. Steve is highly regarded in the mining industry for his extensive experience and insight. Steve will help Interior take the proper steps forward to ensure American energy dominance is achieved, while also being a responsible steward of American lands.”
Environmental groups were swift to cast doubt on the second part of Zinke’s assessment.
“Nominating Steven Gardner to direct the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement is akin to hiring a wolf to guard sheep,” said Bill Price of the Sierra Club. “He’s a lifelong servant of the coal industry who has consistently put the profits of billionaire coal executives above the safety of workers and the enforcement of clean air and water protections for communities living near coal mining sites.”
Gardner is the president and chief executive officer of a coal consulting and engineering firm called ECSI, based in Lexington, Kentucky.
Like many Trump appointees, Gardner was critical of Obama-era regulations in general and specifically those emanating from the office he’s been tapped to lead.
In a 2014 op-ed he wrote for the Lexington daily paper, he criticized Obama policy approaches to balancing the needs of environmentalists with that of energy development.
“Many in Environmental Protection Agency have shown a disingenuous attitude and demonstrated hidden agendas, many times cooperating with environmental activists, showing clear conflicts of interest while reinterpreting long-standing regulatory policy and retroactively changing rules,” he wrote.
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky also praised Trump’s nomination of Gardner.
“Having Kentuckian Steve Gardner lead the Office of Surface Mining will be a welcome relief to Kentucky and the nation,” Paul said. “The last administration’s OSM ignored science and economics when it worked to put an end to Kentucky coal mining with an overreaching rule on waterways near coal mines.”
Lawmakers in Kentucky and West Virginia, where coal mining has long been the sole economic engine, grew weary of Obama-era policy aimed at reducing the amount of coal used in America’s energy portfolio.
Scientists consider coal to be one of the dirtiest ways to generate electricity. Coal-fired power plants accounted for nearly a quarter of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2012, according to the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions.
In order to meet emissions standards agreed upon at the United Nations’ Paris climate agreement, the United States encouraged phasing in power plants that relied on renewable energies and cleaner burning fossil fuels such as natural gas. Trump withdrew from the Paris agreement in June.
Despite the Trump administration’s full-throated support of the coal industry, many economists say it is on life support. They point to the spate of bankruptcies, escalating prices in the coal market which make electricity providers cost wary and other factors outside of purely environmental goals.
The Office of Surface Mining’s main task is to regulate existing coal mines, ensuring they adhere to environmental standards set forth by Congress in the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 – passed out of growing concern about the environmental hazards associated with coal mining.
The agency also has secondary missions involving the monitoring and regulation of reclamation projects at abandoned mines and supporting technology development and resources for technical assistance.
Gardner thanked Trump for the nomination and said he would work to make coal-producing communities better.
“My whole life, I have been involved with mining on multiple levels, and I understand the importance of these issues to the communities we serve,” he said Thursday. “I pledge to work every day on behalf of the men and women across this country who look to the OSMRE office as a partner in bettering life for all people on mining lands.”
Gardner’s nomination must be approved by Congress.