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Interior adopts controversial last-minute rule to make the coal industry cleaner

Bulldozers move coal at a plant in Logan County near Yolyn, W.Va. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg)

The Obama administration finalized a rule Monday morning that aims to protect thousands of miles of streams by forcing coal mining companies “to avoid mining practices that permanently pollute streams, destroy drinking water sources … and threaten forests,” officials said in a statement.

Under the rule, which overhauls regulations in place for more than three decades, coal companies that have finished mining in an area will be required to restore the land to the same condition that existed before digging began. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called the new regulations “a balanced approach to meeting the nation’s energy needs.”

In the statement, released before the rule was published in the Federal Register, she noted that the administration “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.”

But the announcement, coming a month before power is handed over to a new presidential administration, is almost certain to anger coal companies and conservative Republicans. The rule likely will be an early target of President-elect Donald Trump, who pledged during his campaign to help turn around an industry beset by debt, job losses and declining profits — all of which make the cleanup requirements of a 1977 federal law more difficult.

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The industry’s financial crisis has led to fears that the nation’s largest coal companies might leave taxpayers with hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup costs for closed mines. Companies are currently obligated to rehabilitate hundreds of huge strip mines in the West and mountaintop-removal sites in the East.

Those worries spiked this year when Peabody Energy, the world’s largest publicly traded coal company, appealed to creditors for an extra month to pay its debts. Over six months ending in March, two more of the nation’s four biggest coal companies have declared bankruptcy.

The National Mining Association quickly slammed the new rule, calling it a duplication of regulations that already exist under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977.  “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,” said Hal Quinn, the group’s president and chief executive.

He said the rule reflects “the environmental lobby’s keep it in the ground platform, 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.” Quinn did not mention the sharp drop in the price and use of coal as power plants switch to natural gas —a major reason why coal workers are being released and mines are being shut.

The new rule is the sort of regulation that Trump has vowed to undo. In this case, he could issue a stop-work order to temporarily delay the process it takes to implement it, and the Republican-controlled Congress could assist him by issuing a review order and overturning any rule adopted after midyear.

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Some lawmakers are already complaining. “I continue to have real concerns about this administration’s one-size-fits-all approach to the regulation of energy development and production, which doesn’t work for our state,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.).

Heitkamp said she had toured with a top Interior official who visited North Dakota to show her how the rule would hurt the industry and workers, but to no avail. “Going forward, I’ll work with my colleagues in the [Senate] and the incoming administration to see if this rule is workable,” she said.

The leader of the National Wildlife Federation, Collin O’Mara, called the stream protection rule “an important step forward for wildlife protection.” It’s important to public health and for ecosystems that support fish and wildlife. “This rule will ensure the protection and restoration of streams and update the requirements needed to protect threatened or endangered species and critical wildlife and wild places,” he said.

Interior officials first announced their intent to draft new regulations in 2009. Officials said Monday that the result is guided by the best science and an understanding of improved technology used by coal companies. In the seven years it took to draft and finalize the rule, the department received more than 150,000 comments and recorded statements from 15 public meetings and other gatherings.

“This updated … rule will make life better for a countless number of Americans who live near places where coal is being mined,” said Joseph Pizarchik, director of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. Coal is mined throughout the United States, but the top producing states are Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Illinois, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“We are closing loopholes and improving our rules to more completely implement the law passed by Congress,” Pizarchik said.

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