Congressional critics of Obama administration mining regulations fielded support at a West Virginia hearing this week, but also caught flak from environmental advocates who derided the forum as political theater.
The Kanawha County Courthouse session drew the chairman of the U. S. House Energy and Mineral Resources subcommittee, Colorado Rep. Doug Lamborn, and a fellow Republican member, Rep. Bill Johnson of Ohio. Part of the House’s Natural Resources Committee, the subcommittee has 25 members.
Monday’s field hearing focused on the administration’s ongoing review of regulations that aim to protect streams from rock, dirt and other mining debris. Nine of the 11 witnesses echoed concerns from Johnson and Lamborn that the U.S. Office of Surface Mining has mishandled the potential re-writing of standards adopted in 2008.
So did Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who is not on the subcommittee but offered a statement when the hearing began.
“We do have an issue with the federal regulatory actions that have been taking place most recently, because I do believe that it inhibits job growth and sometimes can stymie our economic development,” Capito said.
The agreeing witnesses included acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, both Democrats.
“Over the past three years, the EPA and other regulatory agencies have relentlessly pursued an illadvised agenda, threatening one of our state’s leading industries and tens of thousands of West Virginia jobs,” Tomblin said. “I am deeply concerned with the direction that federal agencies, including the EPA and OSM, have recently taken in the regulation of the coal industry.”
With coal still fueling nearly half the nation’s electricity, and with West Virginia’s the second greatest coal-producing state, the federal government should be a partner and not an adversary, Manchin said.
“The approach that they’re taking, and I’ve spoken to the OSM officials, is totally unreasonable,” Manchin said. “ The aggressive approach they are taking makes no sense at all, when we are in such dire need of the energy that we have in this great country, and that we’ve been blessed with in our state.”
Much of Monday’s statements reacted to a draft, obtained by The Associated Press in January, that outlined potential standards for water quality and restrictions on mining methods that would affect the quality or quantity of streams near coal mines. The 2008 Bushera regulations had set up buffer zones around streams and were aimed chiefly at mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia.
The draft estimated that its approach would trim 7,000 of the nation’s 80,600 coal mining jobs. Production would decrease or stay flat in 22 states, but climb 15 percent in North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana.
OSM Director Joe Pizarchik has challenged those figures and the overall reaction to what he’s called a “very preliminary document.” Not invited to Monday’s hearing, the agency continues to develop both a proposed rule and an accompanying report detailing its environmental impact, spokesman Chris Holmes said.
With a goal of publishing both by the spring of 2012, Holmes noted that the process relies on the latest science and so far has yielded more than 50,000 comments from industry, regulators and the public.
“As always, the public will be given multiple opportunities to express their opinions on both the environmental impact statement and any proposed rule,” Holmes said. “No one will be excluded.”
Monday’s hearing also featured mining regulators from West Virginia, Virginia and Wyoming who questioned whether OSM was heeding feedback they and other state-level officials have provided. They characterized what the January draft outlined as costly and unnecessary over-regulation.
Executives from the West Virginia and Ohio coal associations offered similar views, as did veteran miner and union official Roger Horton of Citizens for Coal and the Mountaintop Mining Coalition.
“The politically motivated actions of OSM and EPA have cast a long shadow of uncertainty over the coal industry,” said Jason Bostic of the West Virginia Coal Association. “For our mining families and their communities, these mysterious rule changes hang over their heads like an ominous cloud.”
Both Bostic and Katharine Fredriksen, a senior vice president at CONSOL Energy, Inc., warned that the administration’s approach could also cost jobs and production at underground mines.
The hearing’s final witnesses, environmental activists Bo Webb and Maria Gunnoe, differed sharply with Monday’s other speakers. Both called for stronger standards and better enforcement of environmental rules. Each advocated a halt to the mountaintop removal method of surface mining.
Webb questioned why the subcommittee has seized on the January draft while ignoring 19 peer reviewed science papers that he said address human health risks in mountaintop removal communities.
“For the record, let’s just be clear that as of right now, at this moment, there is no re-write,” Webb said. “What we’re hearing here this morning is a lot of speculation.”
Webb and Gunnoe each drew applause after their statements from a sizeable part of Monday’s audience, which also erupted in cries of “shame on you” when Lamborn and Johnson ended their hearing without asking either witness any questions.
“Let’s talk afterward,” Lamborn told Webb.