When the strip-mining bill is debated on the House floor today, it will bring out a theme that is guaranteed to become a gospel of industry as President Carter's energy package moves through Congress namely, that you can't solve the energy crisis and clean up the environment at the same time.
The President says both can be done and he wants both done. In fact, Carter, through Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus, is making an eleventh-hour attempt to significantly strengthen through amendment on the House floor the bill that was passed by the House Interior Committee last week.
But coal mine operators and their congressional supporters are saying that even the weaker committee bill contradicts Carter's energy goals, which seek a switch to coal as fuel and a 65 per cent increase in coal production by 1985. The strip-mining bill would cause a reduction in coal production, they say, because it would prohibit mining on land where it appears environmental damage would be too great. Those restrictions and others in the bill would cause "hundreds of millions of tons" of coal to stay in the ground at a time when more coal is needed, they argue.
Congress is not likely to buy their argument. It has dealt with the strip-mining bill twice, though the bill was stopped each time by a presidential veto. The House is likely to pass the bill by a wide margin today or Friday.
In the case of strip-mining legislation, backers of the bill believe that in fact coal mine operators are ready and eager to begin increased coal production, particularly in the West, which has vast reserves of strippable coal in very thick veins that make it easy and cheap to get out.
What bill backers are worried about, as the House Interior Committee report says, is that "if not properly conducted, current and planned Western coal development could leave behind barren wastelands susceptible to continual erosion and disrupted groundwater systems, signigicantly diminishing the productivity of agricultural areas."
Even most members of Congress from Western states, such as Montana and Wyoming, that stand to benefit economically by the coal boom are strong backers of strip-mining legislation. Senators such as Lee Metcalf and John Melcher, both Montana Democrats, and Rep. Teno Roncalio (D-Wyo.), fear that once the coal operator leave, a bust could follow with formerly productive ranch and cattle lands left unusable if reclamation isn't regulated end enforced by the federal government.
The strip-mining bill, similar to the the one passed last year, calls for; mine operators to return lands to their approximate original contours; a reclamation program using a tax on the coal to reclaim previously strip-mined lands; designating areas, such as national parks, unsuitable for mining; restricting mining in Western valleys where the water tables could be disrupted, and requiring mine operators to get the consent of the surface owners of land above federally owned coal before going ahead with mining their lease.
Opponents of the bill, such as Rep. Robert E. Bauman (R-Md.), will try to weaken some of these provisions, citing a study commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency that predicts a 54-million-ton coal production loss in Appalachaia alone if the bill is passed.
Because of the lobbying by the coal industry and his desire to finally see a bill become law, Interior Chairman Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.) tried to accommodate some of the coal industry's objections in the bill.
As Rep. Philip E. Ruppe (R-Mich.) said Tuesday as the bill ceared the House Rules Committee."This time the mining industry knew there was going to be a bill and they put their best foot forward and tried to compromise" instead of trying to kill the legislation. "On the other hand," Ruppe said, "this time the members of the committee knew there was going to be a bill and made it more palatable" to the mining industry.
What does remain a problem, though, is the administration. It got into the issue late because of slowness in appointing top Interior Department people, and it is still young in dealing with Congress.
The administration is advocating four amendments that would considerably strengthen the bill environmentally. One would put a five-year moratorium on strip mining prime agricultural lands, since no one is really sure that strip-mined lands, even when reclaimed, would be capable of supporting crops such as wheat and corn that might have grown on them before.