Obama Sets Up Water Clash With Mining Rule Trump Opposes

  • Interior Department issues final regulation on coal mining
  • Department cites "negligible" impact on industry costs

The Obama administration issued new regulations to protect streams and groundwater from coal mining, which congressional Republicans swiftly vowed to reverse.

The industry says the U.S. Interior Department’s so-called stream protection rule will strand billions of dollars worth of coal in the ground. Even before it was issued Monday, President-elect Donald Trump had vowed to rescind it, calling it "excessive."

The Interior Department says the rule, which updates 33-year-old regulations, will protect 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forests, primarily in Appalachia. The rule will end practices that permanently pollute streams and drinking water, requiring companies to restore streams once their mining work is complete and to monitor water quality.

“We 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 for a diversified economic future,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement released Monday.

Much of the impact of the rule could be felt in hard-hit coal communities in West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky, where underground mining has been taking place for a century or more. While the administration says this rule will have "negligible impact" on the finances of coal mining companies, industry groups say it would be just one more blow to their chances of survival. Coal has seen its share of the U.S. electricity mix plunge in the face of cheap natural gas and efforts to reduce carbon emissions from the power supply.

Repeal Possible

With the rule issued just weeks before President Barack Obama leaves office, it could be repealed by Congress or reworked by Trump’s Interior Department.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a statement saying he will file for repeal using the Congressional Review Act. That measure gives Congress a fast-track ability to vote on the repeal of a regulation.

“This costly regulation, along with others that are already having a devastating impact, are part of the administration’s plan to demolish these coal communities right now and long after the president has left office," McConnell, a Republican who represents the coal state of Kentucky, said. He pledged to "work with my colleagues to use every tool available to turn back this regulatory assault on coal country.”

The agency estimates the regulation will add an average of $81 million a year in compliance costs to the industry -- or 0.1 percent or less of aggregate annual industry revenues.

Strand Billions

Opponents say it will strand tens of billions of dollars’ worth of coal in the ground.
The National Mining Association estimated an earlier version of the regulation could put vast swaths of U.S. coal reserves off limits and would result in as much as $6.5 billion in lost federal and state tax revenue annually from declining coal production.

The Washington-based trade group represents companies such as Arch Coal Inc., Peabody Energy Corp., and Murray Energy Corp, whose CEO  Robert E. Murray has called the rule the “single greatest threat to the jobs and family livelihoods of our employees that I have seen in my 58 years of coal mining experience.”

After Trump’s election victory, Murray, in an interview, ranked getting rid of the stream protection rule as his top priority -- higher even then undoing the Clean Power Plan or the Interior Department’s moratorium on new federal coal leases.

Longwall Mining

Murray argued that the rule would kill an industry practice known as “longwall mining.” The technique, which involves multiple revolving blades cutting coal from a seam into slices, is key to operations run by closely held Murray Energy.

"This rule bans the most environmentally acceptable method of coal mining," Murray said in a statement Monday after the measure was released. "This unlawful and destructive rule is nothing but a thinly-veiled attempt to destroy our nation’s underground coal mines and put our nation’s coal miners out of work."

Still, environmental groups say this rule, which has been under development by the Obama administration in one form or another since it took office in 2009, is long overdue, and needed to protect hard-hit coal communities from the contamination that can follow mining.

"For too long, mining companies have gotten away with dumping toxic pollutants like mercury and arsenic into waterways," the League of Conservation Voters said in a statement. Noting Trump’s vow to protect water, the group said he should "support this rule instead of bending to the wishes of big polluters who want to keep their free pass to poison mountain streams."

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