Capozzola: Obama Issues Last-Minute Rule, Wants to Finish Off U.S. Coal Industry

fossil fuels
AP/Matthew Brown

So President Obama has gone and done it.

In a rather vindictive move, his Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining (OSM) is out with a broad new “stream rule” that could potentially designate as much as two-thirds of U.S. coal reserves off-limits to mining. In fact, a study of the rule suggests that at least one-third of America’s remaining coal jobs could be put at risk due to the restrictive nature of the rule.

The president has certainly chosen one heck of a last-minute Christmas present. The rule will actually take effect exactly one day before Donald Trump’s inauguration—thereby imposing a very late obstacle to the new administration’s quest to craft a more pragmatic energy policy.

The full text of the new regulation clocks roughly 1,640 pages. And despite OSM’s legal obligation to consult with state agencies, the final rule was drafted without the input of key mining states. What’s particularly troubling is that the regulation simply duplicates the existing oversight already being conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and various states agencies.

Significantly, the actual language being proffered by OSM suggests that the minutiae of the rule is happily intended to kill off the nation’s coal industry. OSM says the rule will “result in the protection or restoration of 22 miles of intermittent and perennial streams per year.” Essentially, the rule bans mining within 100 feet of these streams, which establishes a fairly broad mandate since intermittent streams are one of the typical features of almost every wooded area in North America.

However, green activists like to vilify coal as a “dirty” fuel. But this overlooks the fact that America’s coal-fired power plants are now 90% cleaner than 30 years ago, thanks to the 15 different high-tech mechanisms that trap power plant emissions. And America’s mining companies are already legally required to reclaim the land surrounding mining sites, a task for which they’ve readily invested billions of dollars in recent years.

The supposition, though, is that coal companies simply want to make money—with no thought to the “greater good.” But America has gained much from the extraction of coal, including the affordable power that has long supported safe, first-world living, modern sanitation, and an industrial sector driven by robust electricity generation.

And so, the real question is whether such a redundant new “stream rule” is even necessary. Not when U.S. mining companies are already working diligently to eliminate offsite impacts under the watchful scrutiny of both state and federal agencies.

The U.S. coal industry has lost 68,000 good-paying, middle class jobs in recent years. The new stream rule could boost that toll by potentially tens of thousands of jobs. It could also eliminate billions of dollars in state and federal tax revenues—a troubling prospect for a country already struggling to create middle-class jobs.

If Washington decides that the new stream rule isn’t worth the economic pain, there is some recourse. Under the Congressional Review Act, a simple majority vote in both Houses of Congress could pass a resolution of disapproval. Congress has 60 days to pass such a resolution. But if the resolution succeeds, the new president could sign it, thereby eliminating the stream rule entirely.

With thousands of coal jobs and billions of dollars in tax revenues at stake, it would be understandable if Congress votes to end such an unwieldy regulation.


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