Obama direction on coal issues not so clear
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Last week, on the day after President Obama was re-elected, a U.S. Forest Service official in Colorado signed off on plans by Arch Coal to expand its West Elk Mine into a roadless area of national forest backcountry.
The decision rejected an appeal by local citizens and national environmental groups, who believe the project violates laws meant to protect air quality, forestlands and wildlife, including lynx, black bear and elk.
"Smokey Bear has turned his back on Colorado's natural, roadless lands," said Ted Zukoski, an Earthjustice staff attorney who had tried to block the mine. "Instead, the Forest Service has literally paved the way for a coal mega-corporation to destroy real bear habitat."
That same day, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials in Washington, D.C., forwarded for final White House approval technical changes in a rule aimed at reducing mercury and other toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants.
EPA issuance of that rule has become a focal point for coal industry officials and coalfield politicians who opposed Obama's re-election on the grounds that his administration has carried out a deliberate effort to end all coal mining.
But the contrast between actions on the air pollution rule and the Colorado mining proposal may paint a more accurate picture of where the Obama administration is headed on coal issues in its second term.
Many experts and observers say Obama is likely to continue some initiatives to toughen regulation of coal, but that those moves will face a continued fight -- and likely litigation -- from industry, and be more moderate than the huge "war on coal" campaign would have the public believe.
"President Obama's re-election brings a huge opportunity for progress on public protections, but not a guarantee," said Rena Steinzor, a University of Maryland law professor and president of the Center for Progressive Reform, a left-leaning think tank.
Regulation of mountaintop removal is one area where Obama's plans are unclear.
The election's results mean EPA will continue to appeal court rulings that blocked tougher water quality guidance for Appalachian strip-mining and vetoed the largest mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia history.
But EPA appears to have abandoned plans, floated early in Obama's first term, to rewrite the Clean Water Act "fill rule" to revert it to language that could severely limit the burial of streams beneath mining waste valley fills.
Environmentalists are also far from confident that the Obama EPA will pursue a tough path toward the first national standards for the handling and disposal of toxic coal ash from power plants, another rule that has received staunch opposition from Congress.
On coal-mine safety and health, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration still isn't revealing any timeline for finalizing its key rule to reduce exposure to dust that causes deadly black lung disease.
"There's nothing to share at this point in time," said MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere.
The United Mine Workers union, which didn't endorse a presidential candidate this year after backing Obama in 2008, wants to see some action on that rule, which MSHA chief Joe Main has indicated is hung up "at the next level" above his agency.
"We have supported and continue to support stepped-up enforcement of mine safety and health regulations by MSHA, including the agency's focus on respirable dust and ventilation issues in their impact inspections," said Phil Smith, UMW spokesman. "We also hope that the dust rule that MSHA says is done will move forward."
In the days since the election, speculation about energy and environmental policies for a second term have focused largely on climate change, especially after Obama said in his victory speech that, "We want to see our children live in an America ... that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet."
EPA is expected to finalize rules to limit greenhouse gas emissions from any new coal-fired power plants, but the administration "is still not budging" on environmental group requests that the agency also set greenhouse limits for existing plants, said John Walke, clean air director and senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Coal industry officials have offered mixed reactions to Obama's victory, with the National Mining Association issuing a statement to congratulate the president.
"NMW remains committed to working with the administration and the Congress on an 'all of the above' energy strategy that includes coal, our most abundant energy resource," said association president Hal Quinn. "NMA will continue to pursue public policies that provide reliable, affordable energy ... and the employment opportunities Americans need and deserve."
Bob Murray, president of Murray Energy and a supporter of Republican Mitt Romney, issued a prayer for the country and soon after laid off nearly 160 workers at mines in Utah and Illinois.
"The American people have made their choice," Murray said in the prayer, which was published by the Wheeling newspaper. "They have decided that America must change its course, away from the principals of our founders, and away from the idea of individual freedom and individual responsibility. Away from capitalism, economic responsibility and personal acceptance.
"We are living in a country in favor of redistribution, national weakness and reduced standard of living and lower and lower levels of personal freedom," Murray said.
But Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, said that Obama's re-election actually gives coalfield communities a chance to begin better planning for the future.
"As coal is eclipsed by other forms of energy, people in coal country are justifiably concerned about their livelihoods and their future," Hitt said. "Perhaps the results of this election will finally push some of our leaders to start talking honestly about the challenges we face and the need to diversify coal state economies," Hitt wrote in a post-election essay.
"Our region's decision makers would be doing a far greater service to their constituents by using their political clout to bring federal resources that will help Appalachia and other mining regions make a transition, rather than digging in their heels and refusing to acknowledge that the world is changing."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.