Explosions Coming Over Mountaintop-Mining Rule

WISE COUNTY, VA - APRIL 16: An explosive is detonated at an A & G Coal Corporation surface mining operation in the Appalachian Mountains on April 16, 2012 in Wise County, Virginia. Critics refer to this type of mining as 'mountaintop removal mining' which has destroyed 500 mountain peaks and at least 1,200 miles of streams while leading to increased flooding. The Appalachians are some of the oldest mountains on Earth. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
National Journal
Clare Foran
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Clare Foran
Jan. 8, 2014, 4:06 p.m.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ef­forts to re­write a fed­er­al reg­u­la­tion aimed at pro­tect­ing streams from moun­tain­top-re­mov­al coal min­ing will go un­der the mi­cro­scope Thursday at a hear­ing of the House Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee.

The hear­ing will spot­light a re­port re­leased by the In­teri­or De­part­ment’s Of­fice of the In­spect­or Gen­er­al last month in­vest­ig­at­ing al­leg­a­tions of mis­con­duct with­in the de­part­ment’s Of­fice of Sur­face Min­ing Re­clam­a­tion and En­force­ment in its at­tempt to re­vise a dec­ades-old en­vir­on­ment­al reg­u­la­tion known as the stream buf­fer zone rule.

The re­port is the latest point of con­ten­tion in re­vi­sions of the rule, but Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats have been at log­ger­heads over the is­sue for years.

The reg­u­la­tion is de­signed to guard against the dis­pos­al of debris from moun­tain­top-re­mov­al coal min­ing in streams. It has been sub­ject to a num­ber of re­vi­sions since it de­b­uted and was most re­cently up­dated by Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials in 2008. When Pres­id­ent Obama took of­fice the fol­low­ing year, then-Sec­ret­ary of the In­teri­or Ken Salaz­ar moved to void the 2008 ver­sion of the reg­u­la­tion and In­teri­or set out to cre­ate its own ver­sion of the rule, which would likely im­pose stricter en­vir­on­ment­al stand­ards on coal and min­ing op­er­at­ors. The reg­u­la­tion has not yet ma­ter­i­al­ized, however, even in draft form.

Con­ser­vat­ives say a re­write of the rule would hurt the U.S. coal in­dustry by fur­ther lim­it­ing min­ing activ­ity near streams and wa­ter­ways and re­quir­ing pro­du­cers to com­ply with in­creas­ingly strin­gent reg­u­la­tions. This ties in to the lar­ger polit­ic­al nar­rat­ive that the pres­id­ent is wa­ging a war on coal, which Re­pub­lic­ans have been seek­ing to ad­vance since Obama took of­fice.

“This hear­ing will fur­ther il­lus­trate the lengths that the ad­min­is­tra­tion is will­ing to go to con­tin­ue their war on Amer­ic­an job cre­ation and Amer­ic­an en­ergy pro­duc­tion,” said Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas, ahead of the hear­ing. “It is time that we put a stop to this ab­us­ive rule-mak­ing pro­cess and the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s un­re­lent­ing at­tacks on the coal in­dustry.”

Demo­crats, on the oth­er hand, de­fend the rule as ne­ces­sary to guard against pol­lu­tion of streams and wa­ter­ways. And at least one Demo­crat­ic mem­ber of the pan­el is set to ar­gue that the en­tire prac­tice of moun­tain­top-re­mov­al min­ing should be ree­valu­ated by Con­gress.

“Shouldn’t the com­mit­tee hold a hear­ing on wheth­er or not blow­ing the tops off of moun­tains and then dump­ing them in­to streams im­pacts wa­ter qual­ity, the en­vir­on­ment, and loc­al com­munit­ies?” Rep. Peter De­Fazio, D-Ore., said Wed­nes­day. “We are, yet again, wast­ing valu­able time, re­sources, and en­ergy on an­oth­er massive in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to a polit­ic­al con­spir­acy the­ory that has already been dis­proven by the re­port we will dis­cuss at to­mor­row’s hear­ing.”

The re­port re­leased in Decem­ber looks in­to wheth­er or not In­teri­or of­fi­cials ac­ted in­ap­pro­pri­ately by pres­sur­ing gov­ern­ment con­tract­ors to lower the job-loss es­tim­ate as­so­ci­ated with the re­write of the rule after the con­tract­ors ini­tially es­tim­ated the rule would cost 7,000 jobs.

Its find­ings are some­what opaque, however, and are likely to be seized upon by both sides in mak­ing claims either for or against the ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The in­spect­or gen­er­al states, for ex­ample, that the Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Budget said that cal­cu­la­tions used to de­rive the ori­gin­al es­tim­ate as well as a re­vised, much-lower es­tim­ate were ac­cur­ate.

The re­port does note, however, that OSM of­fi­cials asked the con­tract­ing firm to use a dif­fer­ent set of vari­ables to cal­cu­late job losses after the ori­gin­al num­ber sur­faced. It adds that, when in­ter­viewed, a num­ber of con­tract­ors and OSM em­ploy­ees said they did not think the re­vised es­tim­ate was as ac­cur­ate as the first round of pre­dicted job losses.

Con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers of the pan­el will point to this and oth­er de­tails of the in­vest­ig­a­tion as evid­ence of wrong­do­ing.

“This hear­ing is an im­port­ant step for­ward in this Com­mit­tee’s in­vest­ig­a­tion of this re­write — why it happened, what mo­tiv­ated it, and why this ad­min­is­tra­tion keeps wast­ing tax­pay­er dol­lars pur­su­ing this in­her­ently flawed and grossly mis­man­aged rule­mak­ing pro­cess,” Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee Chair­man Doc Hast­ings, R-Wash., said.

Mean­while, a num­ber of sen­at­ors have also jumped in­to the fray, sig­nal­ing that even after Thursday’s House hear­ing ends, the fight is far from over.

In a let­ter sent Wed­nes­day, four sen­at­ors — John Bar­rasso, R-Wyo., Rob Port­man, R-Ohio, Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Mike Lee, R-Utah — asked Janice Schneider, the pres­id­ent’s nom­in­ee to serve as In­teri­or’s as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary for land and min­er­als man­age­ment, who would head OSM if con­firmed, to re­spond to the al­leg­a­tions.

The sen­at­ors also said they would only sup­port Schneider’s nom­in­a­tion if she agrees to use the ori­gin­al, con­sid­er­ably high­er, job-loss es­tim­ate once con­firmed.

“OSM should abide by its ori­gin­al po­s­i­tion on how to es­tim­ate job losses ex­pec­ted to res­ult from its pro­posed stream rule and we will only be able to sup­port a nom­in­ee who shares this view,” the sen­at­ors wrote.

OSM is ex­pec­ted to re­lease a draft ver­sion of the rule-re­write some­time this year.

Cor­rec­tion: An earli­er ver­sion of this art­icle in­cor­rectly iden­ti­fied Sally Jew­ell as the In­teri­or Sec­ret­ary in 2009. 

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