'I don't see Obama's policies having a major impact' on coal
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Obama administration's moves to more strictly police the mining and burning of coal have been more modest -- and in some ways far less successful -- than they are portrayed by the industry's public relations barrage and by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, according to regulatory experts who have closely followed the issues.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules to limit toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants were softened. A proposal to curb greenhouse gas emissions from electrical generators exempts existing plants altogether.
Labor Department plans for key miner safety and health improvements, including a centerpiece rule to prevent deadly black lung disease, continue to be delayed.
Efforts to crack down on mountaintop removal avoided concrete rule changes, a move that left the EPA open to legal challenge. The first-ever federal standards on handling and disposal of toxic coal ash from power plants have been stalled for more than two years.
"In the big picture, I don't see a huge shift," said Pat Parenteau, who teaches environmental policy at the Vermont Law School. "I see an administration making some strides toward toughening the rules on coal, but I don't see [President] Obama's policies having a major impact."
Some of Obama's policies were thrown out in court, and the administration appears to have slowed down others in the face of harsh opposition from the industry's friends in Congress, especially since Republicans took over the House in the 2010 midterm elections.
Last year, Obama himself stepped in to block new EPA smog standards that would have forced reductions in power plant pollution. The president talked about "the importance of reducing regulatory burdens" as the economy continues to recover.
"Things haven't changed," said Rena Steinzor, a University of Maryland law professor who studies workplace and environmental rules and is president of the think tank Center for Progressive Reform. "I just think that [Obama administration officials] have bought the Republican line on regulations hook, line and sinker."
As the Nov. 6 general election approaches, the campaign to paint Obama as an anti-coal president continues to heat up.
Romney has visited coalfield communities in Ohio, Virginia and Colorado, campaigning in part on his promise to loosen Obama rules on the industry. Coal companies and related political groups are funding massive television campaign ads against Obama. In a close Electoral College race, relatively small coal communities in Southeastern Ohio and Southwestern Virginia could help decide the election. And industry officials are promoting fear of what they say would be an even more aggressive Obama regulatory agenda during a second term.
Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association, said last week that Obama had promised "to develop 'clean-coal' technology," but that the administration's policies have "skewed the market against coal."
"Governor Romney and President Obama must speak to those voters, and voters across America, who have counted on coal to provide affordable electricity, jobs and a better standard of living for themselves and their families," Quinn said in a statement.
In recent days, both candidates increasingly have been trying to do just that.
During last week's debate, Romney went after Obama when the president said that coal jobs have increased during his time in office.
"This has not been Mr. Oil or Mr. Gas or Mr. Coal," Romney said. "Talk to the people that are working in those industries. I was in coal country. People grabbed my arms and say, 'Please, save my job.'"
Obama's response has been to try to paint Romney as having reversed himself on coal, after complaining that power-plant pollution "kills people." Obama also has touted his own administration's investments in "clean-coal" programs aimed at reducing dangerous emissions.
The United Mine Workers union has not issued an endorsement, saying instead, "Neither candidate has yet demonstrated that he will be on the side of UMW members and their families as president."
Nationwide and in Appalachia, the number of coal miners working actually did increase during the first three years of the Obama presidency. However, since January, a string of layoffs has been announced, and coal-mining employment in West Virginia alone dropped by about 1,300 jobs in the second quarter of 2012, according to Labor Department data. More layoffs likely are on the way.
Most experts say the impact of regulatory changes is overblown, and point to other factors behind Appalachian coal's decline: Thinner and lower-quality seams are left, meaning production and productivity are dropping. Tough competition from inexpensive natural gas and other coal basins makes matters worse.
Writing in the peer-reviewed Electricity Journal in July, researchers from the think tank Resources for the Future concluded that low natural gas prices have had "a substantially larger impact" -- five or six times greater -- than new EPA regulations on coal's decline.
Earlier this month, another report, by the economics firm The Brattle Group, concluded that additional coal plant retirements expected over the next four years are "primarily due to changing market conditions, not environmental rule revisions, which have trended toward more lenient requirements and schedules."
"It's the market forces that are pushing [coal] out of the market," said Alan Beamon, director of electricity, coal, nuclear and renewables analysis for the Energy Department's Energy Information Administration.
Government and industry projections don't indicate that coal is going to just go away, but most forecasts show production in Central Appalachia is going to drop dramatically over the next decade.
On Friday, new Energy Department data showed that coal produced 39 percent of U.S. electricity in August. That's up from a low of 32 percent in April, but "notably lower than the 50 percent average over the 1990-2010 period," the agency said.
At the same time, scientific studies have increasingly outlined the environmental damage caused by mountaintop removal mining. Burning coal is a major source of greenhouse gases, and report after report explains that power plant emissions are linked to respiratory illnesses and premature death. Over the past six years, coal miners have seen a series of major mining disasters, and government data indicates there's been a resurgence of black lung incidence and death.
A Harvard University study released in February 2011 found that fully accounting for coal's cost in environmental and public health damage would triple the cost of coal-generated electricity.
Four years ago, as a presidential candidate, Obama talked tough about coal. He famously explained that his policy for addressing climate change -- a cap-and-trade bill -- would "bankrupt" anyone who tried to build a coal-fired power plant without equipment to capture carbon dioxide emissions. And in his historic victory speech on election night in 2008, Obama listed a "planet in peril" as one of the nation's biggest challenges, along with "two wars" and "the worst financial crisis in a century."
Once in the White House, though, Obama and his team focused on passing a health-care reform bill. Climate legislation passed the House, but stalled in the Senate.
Empowered by U.S. Supreme Court and appeals court rulings on her agency's Clean Air Act authority, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson moved forward with a proposed rule to address carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. However, the proposal applies only to new facilities, not to plants already operating, under construction or in the permitting pipeline.
"Of course, reducing emissions from the power sector requires that we also set standards for the existing fleet of power plants, which are the main source of emissions currently," said Rachel Cleetus, a senior climate economist with the Union of Concerned Scienitsts.
Jerry Taylor, a senior fellow with the libertarian Cato Institute, said the EPA proposal would have little effect, because market forces already have reduced the prospects that any new coal plants would be built.
"[The EPA] could have gone after existing coal-fired generation, but didn't," Taylor said in a commentary. "They essentially . . . did nothing: And this from an administration that had long argued that political opponents better come to the negotiating table and sign-on to a cap-and-trade bill lest the administration grow tired of talk and ram something through unilaterally."
On mountaintop removal, Obama also talked tough, addressing the issue in a meeting with regional news reporters just two months after taking office.
"I will tell you that there's been some pretty country up there that's been torn up pretty good," Obama said. "I think we have to balance the economic growth with good stewardship of the land God gave us."
The next day, the EPA announced its crackdown on mountaintop removal mining. Agency officials issued a plan for tougher permit reviews and, eventually, new water-quality guidance aimed specifically at Appalachian coal-mining operations.
"The tone of those documents clearly declared a war on coal," said Jamie Van Nostrand, an associate professor and director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at the West Virginia University College of Law. "It was pretty clear that things were going to be different."
Van Nostrand said the EPA launched its mountaintop removal initiative without going through the normal rulemaking process, which would have given industry and environmental groups an opportunity for comment and hearings. While the EPA's permit reviews and guidance slowed new permit issuances to a trickle, eventually lawsuits brought by industry and by coal-friendly state officials succeeded in blocking the agency's efforts.
"They could have probably done this if you actually have a rulemaking," Van Nostrand said, "but you've got to go through that process."
Citizen groups had preferred all along for the EPA to go the rulemaking route, especially to reverse Bush administration changes to the Clean Water Act definition of "fill material," to stop extensive burial of streams with mountaintop removal waste.
The EPA has talked about the growing science that shows residents near mountaintop removal operations face increased risk of illness. But anti-mountaintop removal groups note that the administration has not taken action on that issue. Just last week, a coalition of groups sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for two new permits it issued without examining potential public health impacts.
"I would say that the Obama administration has taken some steps in the right direction, but should do more," said Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel with the group Earthjustice. "For their record, I would say well intentioned but needs to be more comprehensive, forceful and effective."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.