For decades, Colorado has proudly mined the coal that fuels American industry. During World War II, coal helped fire the steel foundries and factories that built America into the “Arsenal of Democracy.” And today, with coal still supplying roughly 35 percent of U.S. power generation — more than any other single power source last year — coal continues to keep millions of Americans warm in winter and cool in summer.
Unfortunately, Colorado’s coal industry is now facing an all-out assault from Washington. It’s not one that’s been widely reported. But Colorado is one of 17 coal-producing states that have formally protested the Obama Administration’s “Stream Protection Rule” (SPR), the most recent of a fistful of regulations that some experts say will spell the end of the industry and the thousands of jobs it supports. That will also mean higher energy costs for both basic industries and low-income families, with troubling repercussions for the wider economy.
How did this battle for coal’s existence come about so suddenly? Because the Obama administration — ignoring the welfare of coal states — has moved aggressively to ensure that coal will now be kept in the ground. With little fanfare, the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining has unveiled a massive, 2,100-page regulation that rewrites nearly its entire program, conflicts with scores of existing laws and authorities, and threatens to render the majority of America’s coal reserves off-limits to further mining.
If there was a poster child for needless, costly regulation, the SPR would certainly qualify. Despite its name, this regulatory behemoth actually has little to do with protecting streams. That’s because the agency’s own reports already show that virtually all U.S. mining operations carry no off-site environmental impacts.
Instead of protecting streams, the SPR aims to protect regulators. A skeptical Congress is asking why OSM needs more funding when market conditions have already left it with fewer coal mines to regulate. Lacking a credible answer, OSM has responded by seeking to co-opt additional authority currently shared by the states and the Environmental Protection Agency.
In addition to being needless and duplicative, the SPR is certain to drive up the cost of mining and thus the number of unemployed miners. The SPR’s language is so broad that a full reading could be used to essentially eliminate the safest and most efficient techniques for coal mining, including the long-wall mining currently used in some of the largest coal-producing states. An independent analysis of the rule projects the loss of at least 40,000 high-wage coal mining jobs nationwide. Total job losses throughout the U.S. coal supply chain — from railroads and power plants to ports and heavy equipment — could reach 281,000 jobs.
The impact of keeping so much affordable energy in the ground would be staggering. The annual value of lost coal production could reach $29 billion, with federal and state tax revenue falling by as much as $6.4 billion annually. Coal communities won’t be the only losers, however. Without the affordable power that coal provides, the U.S. economy will face troubling ripple effects. Displacing affordable coal power with higher-cost alternatives will mean heavier price burdens on everyone, including those who can least afford it.
It’s bad enough that the SPR is unnecessary and costly. But adding insult to injury is the fact that OSM wants to impose these costs on states with whom it failed to consult during six years of protracted rule-making. That helps to explain why the agency has successfully expanded its regulatory program by duplicating responsibilities already carried out by states and other federal agencies.
The SPR is a rule in search of a purpose — a regulation that is more about politics than environmental protection. Colorado is right to demand accountability from a federal agency that has clearly lost its way.
Hal Quinn is president of the National Mining Association.
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- On May 10, 2016